First-novelist Chalfoun has relied on her own experiences as a circus worker to create this decidedly unglamorous view of a circus orphan's life--a bleak tale with occasional sparks of originality and insight glimmering from beneath the ashes. Mat hardly remembers her earliest years, before her mother took her along to live in an Airstream trailer with Enis, a circus crewman. Then, when Mat was nine, her mother fled, leaving Mat with her lover, who promptly began sexually abusing the little girl. Regularly raped by the man she calls ""Pa,"" Mat grows up unkempt and uneducated among the travelling performers, finding happiness only in her work as a roustabout, swinging a sledgehammer to secure the stays of the circus tent, apparently unaware of how different her life is from those of the townies she holds in such contempt. At the age of 15, though, Mat is ""rescued"" by Jayson, the 35-year-old ringcrew chief, who moves her into a sleeper with Al, a transvestite cook happy to act as surrogate mother, and puts her to work in the costume truck with Tante, a burn-scarred crone whose own terrible past throws an even deeper shadow over Mat's grim life. Somehow the teenaged Mat dares to hope for romance and domesticity, even as Jayson, now her lover, casually betrays and abuses her. Barely able to spell out a simple love letter, Mat cannot imagine a life outside this strange, peripatetic world, yet she must learn how to escape its no-win rules if she is to survive at all. Grim stuff, clearly, but Chalfoun's characters are not easy to forget. One wonders where the author's unflinching eye will light next.