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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Julius Romeros Extravaganza--Liminal Identity at the Circus

Those who read this blog know that I like to talk about liminal characters.  Liminality is an anthropological term for people who exist outside the bounds of society.  Few characters can be more liminal than circus sideshow performers in the suppressive atmosphere of the Victorian period. This is the theme of The Julius Romeros Extravaganza.

I received The Julius Romeros Extravaganza Part 1: The Bearded Girl for review from author Hayley Lawson-Smith whose publisher ASJ Publishing generously provided the free copy in Kindle format.  I am always happy to help indie writers of quality find their audience.  This is a special pleasure when the book is unusual. 


When I started the book I wondered what I was doing reading a book with characters that have ridiculous names like Hiffletrimp.  Oh piffle!  Was this a children's novel?  I know that children often enjoy names of that sort.  After a while, I understood that the author's purpose was satiric.  Characters have ridiculous names when they are being held up for ridicule.  I began to appreciate it more when I saw a parallel to a Gilbert and Sullivan story line.   I must have imbibed a love of  G&S with my mother's milk because as a three year old I played The Child's Gilbert and Sullivan album so often that the visiting nurse assisting with the care of my baby brother declared that she would quit if she heard "We sail the ocean blue" one more time. So a number of decades later I found myself singing another song from that album at a certain point in the plot of Hayley Lawson-Smith's book.  No, it's not exactly the same situation, but many parents would think that it's an equally outrageous one. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Julius Romeros Extravaganza pokes fun at conventional attitudes through reductio ad absurdum which means reducing them to absurdity.

I really began to enjoy The Julius Romeros Extravaganza when Abigail, the bearded protagonist, finally arrived where she was meant to be.   I have read a great deal of circus fiction, and not all of it has been positive in its portrayal of the circus experience.   Circus employees have not always been well-treated by their employers in fiction. Historically, real children were often exploited and abused as they were in many other child labor situations outside of the circus.  So I would say that Abigail was remarkably fortunate.

 This circus is radically different.  One of  the reasons why it's different is because of Julius Romeros, the owner of the circus.  He is an extraordinary man.  I was particularly impressed with his policy of having the sideshow performers master a skill.  This makes them the equals of big top performers.  Big top acts are skill based, but the sideshow is based on the display of individuals whose appearance is outside conventional norms.  People come to gawk at them.  This means that they are objects to the viewers, not human beings.  When the sideshow performers have skills to exhibit, it makes the sideshow more entertaining.  It also gives the performers some dignity, and a sense of accomplishment from being able to do something well.  This increase in the quality of life for the sideshow performers made the circus a true refuge for these liminal human beings.  This book demonstrates how a circus which travels from place to place can be a home for those like Abigail who suffer intolerance in the outside world.

Although the setting of this novel isn't specified, I learned that "spruiker", the term used for what American circuses and carnivals call a "barker", is an Australian one.  It sounded Dutch to me.  Wiktionary also thinks this is likely. In any case, "barkers" or "spruikers" are used for sideshow acts.  They promote the act, so that audiences will be drawn to view it.  So I'd say that this book probably takes place in Victorian Australia.

Wherever the Julius Romeros Extravaganza might have been located, I would dearly love to have seen a circus where all the acts are as unique as this one was likely to have been.  I am hoping to see more tales about the performers at this spectacular venue from Hayley Lawson-Smith in the near future.



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