Thank you to NetGalley and Quercus Publishing for providing me with an ARC, in exchange for my honest review.
Nydia Hetherington’s book, A Girl Made of Air, tells the story of a young girl, Mouse, (we never learn her real name) born to members of a travelling circus troupe in the UK after WWI, and her eventual immigration to the US where she dazzles Coney Island as The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived. The story is told through flashbacks by Mouse, in interviews with a journalist, newspaper clippings, saved letters and Mouse’s journals. Tossed into the mix are stories of fairies and sea creatures, told to her by her friend (and surrogate parent and friend) Serendipity Wilson, who introduces a young Mouse to the high wire. Mouse’s mother, Marina, was once the shining star of the circus, a gorgeous siren who swam in a tank with crocodiles, but who has now deteriorated into alcoholism. The circus troupe is filled with odd and quirky characters, none of whom show any interest in Mouse until Seredipity Wilson with her brilliant flame-like hair and high-wire skills arrives.
Mouse has been neglected and abandoned by her parents, and lives her life in the half-shadows of the circus wagons. She keeps to herself, other than spending time with the animals Manu (her father) trains, keeps her head down and generally tries to remain invisible. Serendipity Wilson coaxes her out of her shell, trains her on the high-wire, and moves her into her tent. She tells Mouse stories of her youth, of fairies and pixies, and tries to help Mouse find her self-worth. As Mouse becomes the star of the show, dancing fearlessly along the high wire, ugly truths about her mother and father come to light. Serendipity becomes pregnant and withdraws into herself, and Mouse is left to care for the new baby while she continues to practice her high-wire act. Events conspire to rip Mouse from the world she has finally started to build for herself, and all the things she thought she could count on are pulled from her.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit – I was intrigued by the title and having read the author’s bio and found out she had been a circus performer herself, thought this would be an interesting one to try. I liked the creative way the story line unfolded through the use of different stories and journal entries, letters, and an interview. Set in post WWII Britain, the author does a good job creating that world that is trying to rebuild, and many different ways the war affected people involved with it, both in the UK and mainland Europe. I would have liked perhaps a little more time spent on Mouse’s life in New York/Coney Island, but that may be a personal bias as I have a fond spot for Coney Island even when, as in this timeline, she’s a bit past her glory years. Mouse is a multifaceted character. She is someone you want to cheer for, even when you find it difficult to do so as she uses people and pushes away those who love her and are trying to help her. I didn’t find the story had much magical realism in it. There are some references to magic and the fairies in the stories Serendipity Wilson tells but the hints of magic in other parts of the story are explained away by the end (which underscores them more as childhood imaginings from a girl who spends a lot of time without friends and inside her own head.)
Well-written and engaging, I would recommend this book and will look for others in the future from this author as well.