I think the first time I saw A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington on my feed was when its cover was revealed by its publisher, Quercus. It instantly caught my attention and been religiously checking Netgalley waiting for the ARCs to appear. When it did and I requested it, I was not expecting to be accepted. In fact, I kind of forgot about it until I got the notice. As I had some bad luck with Netgalley ARCs recently, I was a bit wary. And I honestly still have no idea how I feel about this book. I guess I’ll get it figured out by the time I finish writing my review. It might be a bit rambly, so bear with me.
I’m adding this title to my Armed with a Bingo card, under the ‘A book of your choice‘ square.
Note: the quotes used in this review are from the ARC, they might change in the final version of the book.
|Series: –||Genre: fiction|
|Date of Publishing: September 3rd 2020||Publisher: Quercus|
A lyrical and atmospheric homage to the strange and extraordinary, perfect for fans of Angela Carter and Erin Morgenstern.
This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived…
Born into a post-war circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned in the shadows of the big top. until the bright light of Serendipity Wilson threw her into focus.
Now an adult, haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus, our narrator, a tightrope artiste, weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child… But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again?
Beautiful and intoxicating, A Girl Made of Air brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory; Marina, Manu, Serendipity Wilson, Fausto, Big Gen and Mouse will live long in the hearts of readers. As will this story of loss and reconciliation, of storytelling and truth.
“The dream seems so real. That’s the power of dreams, the power of films, or books, of words. They deceive us, make us believe their lies, until the lights come up, we close the book, we open our eyes, and once again, we’re confined to our drudgery.”
This was a no brainer. I’m pretty sure I used this song previously, because come on, I LOVE Carnival of Rust by Poets of the Fall. It’s a super atmospheric song and I think the topic and its lyrics goes pretty well with the book, its setting and its MC.
A Girl Made of Air is the debut novel of Nydia Hetherington. As such, I had no idea what to expect and so didn’t have too high expectations either. Which is a good thing. I can’t say that I’ve read many books/stories with a circus setting, but it’s definitely something that captures my imagination. I just recently watched The Greatest Showman for example. I also have many memories regarding the circus – as a kid, there was hardly a year when I haven’t been at least once each summer. I remember that one time I was lucky enough to attend a Cirque du Soleil show a couple of years back – I was awestruck and deeply inspired when it was over. Anyway. I enjoy attending these events, not least because these artists make it seem so easy, so magical. And it’s anything but that.
As someone who is into rock and roll, and generally are interested in behind the scenes stories, I long left behind the illusions that life as an artist – be it any kind of art – is hardly ever about rainbows and happyness only. Sure, there are the lucky few who get everything and manage to keep their life together, but let’s face it, there are more than who do not.
The reason why I went into this lenghty intro is because A Girl Made of Air shows you the uglier side of the circus in a way. We are after WWII, things aren’t that bright to begin with. Money is hard to come by. The MC, whose real name we never learn, but who is called Mouse by her only friend, borns into this world. Her father is the animal tamer Manu, her mother is the star of the show, Marina, who swims with crocodiles. Her life should be full of wonder and adventure, but it’s not. Her parents doesn’t love her, the others pretty much ignore her, so it’s not much of a wonder she ends up being a socially awkward, shy child and person.
Her only friend is Serendipity Wilson – who weirdly is only referred to with her full name – a funambulist, who takes Mouse under her wings and teaches her what she knows. Be it funambulism, folk tales of Isle of Man or simply love.
“We must always have an equal voice. That1s why you must find yours, Mouse, in the end, good sense is what must be heard, no matter who speaks it.”
Without going into spoilers much, A Girl Made of Air is mainly the life story of Mouse, although we also learn about the life of the others around her – her parents, the circus folks (Fausto the owner, Big Gen, Stella, Serendipity, John Frazer, etc.). It focuses more on personal relationships and hardships rather than the circus life which here is only just the stage to Mouse’s spotlight.
A Girl Made of Air is an interesting mix of diary entries, rememberings and present narratives. It creates an atmosphere which draws you in, but it also can be a hit or miss for people. I personally liked the writing style and Mouse’s story, but I’m not sure at all if I liked any of the characters and that’s what confuses me. Sympathized with them, was shocked by their actions, maybe even felt sorry for them, but never truly liked them. Maybe Serendipity and Cubby came the closest to that.
What I did like about them was that none of them were only good or bad. They all had their flaws, their good traits. They were all (painfully) human. Their personalities, decisions, lives formed by their experiences, not many of them good. Giving the more important side characters a background was also a nice touch, one I really appreciated because we got to understand them more in general and in relation to Mouse. Let’s take Marina’s past for example, that definitely was something I didn’t see coming and which very well affected their later relationship.
As for the MC, Mouse herself, she is a character I can’t puzzle out. She is that kind of MC who is very relatable but somehow you still can’t really like her. Or it might be just me. Her life in the circus is definitely not an easy one as I mentioned above until Serendipity enters her life to brighten it up. Not having any other friends, it’s not surprising she is attached to Serendipity and that wants to do everything in her power to make her happy, and that she makes somewhat naive decisions in the process. And then later some irrational ones which stands quite in contrast to her personality. At one hand I could very well relate to her – her awkwardness around people, the way she rather hid under wagons and tried not to have eye contact with anyone. I understood what was going on in her head. But then the second half of the book came around and I struggled to understand the sudden change in her personality upon meeting a person.
“Being on the high wire is like being in a different world. It’s quieter than the down-below place, the air somehow softer, as if it wants to wrap me up.”
While I overall enjoyed A Girl Made of Air, I couldn’t help feeling that a different balance in the storytelling regarding the stages of her life would have worked better. The first half is mostly about her childhood, her life in the circus and how her legend as the The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Live started. Then we have about 45% of the second half reading about her life in Coney Island and the hight of her career, when she really became famous is just being told with big strokes, we only get the main facts, but personally I would have been much more interested in this period of her life than the rather lenghty part of her Coney Island life. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting, but it really didn’t add too much overall. I can’t help leaving the book behind feeling like I wanted more out of it than I initially got.
Now that I got to this point in my review, I’m starting to realize that what makes me unable to decide how I feel about A Girl Made of Air is that I’m not sure what exactly the main point of it was. To tell the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived? Or to tell the story of her search for someone while also telling the story how she became a legend? She is telling her story to someone who is aware of the later part of her career but we, the readers aren’t really let into that part and I feel like that was a missed opportunity. As well as using more the era’s historical background, of which almost nothing seeps through.
“Everyone is the star of their own show, performing for the passing, faceless crowds. We are all clowns.”
On the other hand, A Girl Made of Air deals with heavy topics such as holocaust, suicide, child birth, rape, depression, grief, loss. Not very in details and sometimes only touching them, but they are there. Weighing heavily on our conscience all along.
Nydia Hetherington‘s A Girl Made of Air is a thought provoking debut, one that’s hard to put in a box or even describe. It needs a specific frame of mind to really enjoy and appreciate the complexity of the characters and the beauty of the writing. It definitely won’t be for everyone and that’s fine. I still urge you to give it a go if you like circus settings and a story about walking on a tight rope. Sometimes literally.