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Kritika Shrivastava

By Karen Wallace
Simon & Schuster, London, 2005, pp. 217, $11.25

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 11 November 2005

Ellen is the eldest daughter of the owner and ringmaster of Spangles circus. With her sister Lucy, she performs in a famous bareback horse- riding duo called The Amazing Scarletta Sisters. “For Ellen the challenge of performing was doing it well. For Lucy it was the thrill of being adored.”   Set in 19th century East End London, against the backdrop of a Victorian circus, The Unrivalled Spangles is a story about the two Spangle sisters Ellen and Lucy, their struggles with family, profession, identity and love. In this ordinary story of young love, Wallace does not veer far away from the traditional Romeo Juliet plot. The only aberration is that it ends in union not abysmal tragedy. The story is resplendent with fantastic figures—Lord Rowley the boxing kangaroo, Claudius the ailing lion, and Sam’s happy families, Ellen who has mystical healing powers (the same treatment that is used to save Claudius is what brings her father Fred Spangle back from the death bed). This fantastic story is authenticated by traces of fatalism, lore and superstition, take the instance of the Macbethian style prophecy telling gypsy woman, the broken mirror symbolizing bad luck that finally leads to Lucy’s death.   Ellen Spangle’s struggle to educate herself and her determination to assert her individual identity as something and someone apart from a mere circus performer is as endearing as it is amusing and forms an entertaining subplot in the novel. The storyline is predicable; the only moment of tragedy is the younger Scarletta Lucy’s accidental death, which is soon glossed over by Ellen entanglement with Lucy’s love—the enemy’s son Joe Morgan.   The voices fail to be unique or step out of age-old stereotypes, the strict father, the sacrificial older sister, the wilder more frivolous younger one, the enemy’s desirable noble virtuous son and many others. When reading the book one cant help but feel that Wallace in her characterization has borrowed heavily and is complete in clichés with the English dandy and the thieving gypsy. However, Wallace succeeds in bringing to life the actual world of the circus with its artificial allure through the lives and foibles of the Spangles. The story is an effective portrayal of the dirt beneath the glamour, the practice and hard work behind seemingly effortless magical performances, the harsh reality beyond the ring.   This story also makes the ...

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