Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is an absolutely spectacular read. There has been so much hype surrounding this novel (an International Bestseller), even more so now with the movie soon to be released, but I couldn’t anticipate just how much this book lived up to and excelled expectation.
Set in Depression era America, Jacob Jankowski’s life falls apart days before completing a six-year-long veterinary course. Feeling the need to escape, he walks out of his final exams and keeps walking until he discovers a Travelling Circus train on their way to their next show. The story follows Jacob as he becomes the vet for the Circus menagerie, falls in love with the married Marlena, and befriends many colourful characters on the way.
It’s obvious how much research has gone into writing this book, with superb descriptions of the circus life and accurate inclusions of circus terminology. This is even more apparent when reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, where she admits to referencing stories from news articles in the novel and bringing in inspiration in the form of real circus shows and animals that she’d discovered while researching. Not only has the 1930’s Travelling Circus aspect been thoroughly researched, but also that of the Great Depression. Gruen has created an incredible picture of life in America in the years after the crash and the prohibition era, such as the references to homeless people with their shoes tied to their legs to avoid them being stolen while they slept, and the Jamaica Ginger paralysis caused by excessive drinking of ‘Jake’. Water For Elephants is not only a wonderfully written story, but also an historic account of the life of the Travelling Circus and Depression-era America.
It’s an exciting, fast-paced novel, with lovable characters and an amazing cast of interesting circus performers. The characters are brilliantly written and there’s an effortless emotional attachment to them. In particular, I loved the characters of Camel and Walter (and Queenie, his dog), who are an integral part of Jacob’s story and all have an excellent comradeship, despite the fact they belong to different parts of the circus hierarchy.
The writing style is so descriptive of the sights, smells and sounds within the circus and while Gruen manages to create an evocative circus atmosphere, it flows easily and is easy to read. While I read Water for Elephants, my mind kept thinking of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – equally as descriptive, with superb characters and also written about that particular time in American history. It’s so easy to draw comparisons between the books and as I personally regard Of Mice and Men as one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read, it seems no surprise that I should think Water for Elephants anything less than phenomenal either.
While I didn’t expect that Water for Elephants would live up to my expectation, I’m so pleasantly surprised that it did. It completely surpassed my high-expectations and is a book that I know I shall read over and over. It’s story and characters will linger with me for a long time. It’s a dazzling account of the spectacular life of the circus, with all it’s cruelty, violence and hardship that hides beneath the showy façade that the outside world sees.