Friday, 26 October 2012
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Released: May 26th 2006
Pages: 335 (Paperback)
As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was ultimately their only hope for survival.
The first time I heard about this novel was through NaNoWriMo, as they said Gruen originally wrote this novel as part of the competition Having taken part myself back in 2010, I was immediately curious about what was churned out - and since then, the novel seems to have become more and more popular, with outstanding reviews and even a film. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this novel - and I was not disappointed.
To briefly summerise, the novel is told from ninety-three-year-old Jacob Jankowski's point of view. After the death of his wife, he is placed in a nursing home, where he is basically told what to do, what to eat, and how to act. However, Jacob isn't a frail old man - he still has some spirit in him, and as it turns out that a circus is coming to town, he begins to reminisce about his past - specifically when he was twenty-three years old and travelling with the circus act known as the Benzini Brother's Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Firstly, I loved the structure of the novel. I liked how it cross-cut between Jacob as an old man, and Jacob in his prime - it gave a chance for a great comparison between the two life stages of the character, and it showed the reader how much someone can change due to experiences throughout their lifetime. I loved how it was based in a circus - I seem to have an obsession with circus reads lately, and I just loved the different descriptions of the train and the acts and the performers and the workers. Realistically, a circus is so small - but from within the circus life, it may as well be a whole new universe. I thought that it was a great technique from Gruen to have Jacob so young and foolish to begin with - it gave a chance for reader's who perhaps don't know the inner workings of the circus to become accustomed with its weird ways and lifestyle. Gruen eased the reader into the story, making it an easy ride - unlike when Jacob is riding on top of the train carriages!
The characters were perfect.Yeah, perfect is a pretty strong word - but I think it is perfect to use it in this case (see what I did there?) I loved Jacob. I'm not overly fond of reading novels from a man's point of view, because I worry that I won't connect with the story as much as I would if it were a woman. However, this novel put me to shame, as I found myself able to relate just as well. Jacob as an old man was hilarious and grumpy, an exciting combination, and I honestly think that if he was real, I would love to go and sit with him and listen to his stories. Jacob as a young man was definitely handsome - I even found myself having a bit of a book crush on him! Jacob was overall easy to like - he was the novel's typical good guy, and I think it would be pretty hard not to love him. Marlena, the heroine of the story, I didn't gel with quite as much - but I still thought she was amazing. Her characterization was brilliant - although the reader doesn't get to know as much about her background, we are still given snippets, and the overall portrayal of Marlena is that she is a young girl who made a mistake, and is now trying to live with them, even though she shouldn't have to. For me, this story was just as much hers as it was for Jacob - it was the story of a woman blossoming into a girl. As for the lesser characters, I also found them intriguing - August was charming and terrifying; Uncle Al was a brute and a con-man; Camel was old and lovable Barbara was sexy and charismatic. And last but not least, Rosie. I adored Rosie, and I have to say that maybe she is one of my favourite book characters of all-time. Yes, she is an elephant - and no, we didn't learn much about her past. But for an animal, she brought so much humanity to the novel, I can't quite properly describe it. I think to understand the amount of power that radiated from her simple character, you've just got to read the novel.
For me, this novel wasn't just about the circus - it was so much more than that. I felt like this was one of those novels that manages to change a person's perception of life, even if just a little bit. For me, I learnt a lot about love - not just the love between two people, but the love that animals can give. At first, I didn't understand the reference to elephants - yes, Rosie was in it, but she didn't really do anything. Until the end. And then I understood that it was just as much her story as it was Jacob and Marlena's. It showed that animals aren't fools. They have feelings, and they can pick up on other people's emotions and act accordingly. It taught me a lot about life, something only a pretty amazing novel can achieve. If you love circuses and tales of friendship, you must pick this up right away; there's nothing out there like it. It is un-put-down-able.