Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski’s ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.
Water For Elephants documents the life of Jacob Jankowski, a Polish-American veterinary student who after a serious life altering accident finds himself homeless, penniless and emotionally wrecked, resulting in him running away from all the trappings of his home and academic life and joining a travelling circus purely by chance.
Gruen writes from a dualistic point of view, keeping Jacob as a narrator but alternating between the modern day Jacob (an old man in a care home) and Jacob in his early 20′s at the beginning of his story. Partially retrospective and partially in real time, the novel offers a chance to see the old man assess and remember his life as we read it for the first time, in an increasingly confused and disorientated way. To say anything more explicit about the plot would be detrimental to those coming to the story for the first time, as a whole heap of its appeal is the raw emotion and tragic aspects inherent to Jacobs life, told twice over by the young and old man respectively. Old Jacob comes across as bitter, in a sad and confused way; being an ageing man with none of the strength of body or mind of his circus days, and stuck in a nursing home that is as hostile as his circus environment once way, albeit in a different way – through neglect, rather than cruelty or danger.
The novel itself is extremely fast paced, well written, and extraordinarily moving, with incredible events and richly satisfying characters. Gruen states in her prologue that she took inspiration from true events regarding her details of circus life, and as such her story takes on a far more exciting and disturbing air than if it were purely a work of imagination. I found characters I hated, characters I loved to hate, characters I admired and characters I felt sorry for. Every page turn took me from happy, to angry, to shocked, even to in floods of tears. I cried twice, which is twice more than I did during the movie. Gruen’s words were amongst the most upsetting and poignant of any pseudo-biographical text I have ever read, and the level of compassion felt for a select number of characters was in places almost overwhelming.
Water For Elephants is a thoroughly enjoyable read, but by no means an easy one. It is tragic, dark and downright horrific in places. It is also heart-warming, funny and charming. Major themes dictating the path of the book revolve around illusion vs reality and the internal struggle and obligations associated with man’s moral compass, which is continuously affected by love, mental illness, physical and verbal abuse and self worth. Without giving too much away, one of my favourite elements of the book was the cyclic nature of the plot, with the end mirroring the beginning in more ways than one.
My ultimate verdict? Go read this book. Honestly. Please. It’s one of the very best books I read all summer. And read it before you see the film.