Review of Will Elliott - The Pilo Family Circus

There are a number of things that children love but adults can find creepy, disturbing or just downright scary. Think of puppet shows, balloon animals, ice-cream truck jingles and worst of all clowns.

One night on his way home from work Jamie almost runs over a clown standing oblivious to his surroundings in the middle of a Brisbane street. He thinks little of it. The following night he encounters more of them, all seemingly out of it. When Jamie recovers a small bag one of them drops - believing it contained drugs as they had to have been on something - without realising it, he has put himself in great danger. For now the clowns are aware of him.

And now he has a simple choice - pass an audition to join the circus or die. Unfortunately for him he passes the audition.

This particular circus is a little stranger than most, more sinister and definitely more dangerous. Jamie, now re-christened JJ the Clown, finds himself a member of an antagonistic troupe. There's none of the famous carnival camaraderie; this is more like a civil war with face-paint and big tops.

It's also not your typical circus of trickery, sleight-of-hand and fakery. The freaks are real (the show has a matter manipulator to create them); the fortune-teller can actually see the future and has a crystal ball she uses to spy on the carnie folk. And the clowns try their best to inflict injuries on each other during the show - relying on the magickal powers of their face-paint to prevent them dying and heal their injuries quickly.

But this protection comes at a price as Jamie finds out - the greasepaint might save his life but it makes him a different person - the sadistically violent, uncaring and self-centred JJ, perfect for this clown posse. He also finds the circus's true purpose. Enter through these gates and you wont find yourself losing money on the stalls and you needn't worry about your wallet going missing. This circus steals souls.

This book is bizarre - it's almost as you might imagine a collaboration between Chuck Palahniuk and Salvador Dali, providing they are supplied with enough hallucinogenics and amphetamines to keep them going. Yet is more than just surreal brutality.

To go with this weirdness and mayhem Elliott has even managed to supply a pretty decent plot and some well-rounded characters - okay well-rounded in a kind of slightly out-of-focus, fluorescent, rabid-dog manner but still they're there.

And it's the interactions of two of these characters that provides the books highlight. Jamie and his psychopathic clown alter ego JJ are battling for control of their body and their place within the circus - each trying to gain the upper hand.

Elliott's other great achievement here is that it all holds together. It would have been easier to allow the weirdness to get away, for the violence to destroy all in front of it. But it didn't, it's coherent - as well as splendidly absurd in just the right way. Now I need to go for a lie down.

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