Nydia Hetherington’s A Girl Made of Air twirled across my Twitter timeline with its stunning cover earlier this summer and, as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it.
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?
It’s somehow fitting that we only ever know the book’s narrator—the titular character in A Girl Made of Air—as Mouse and never by her real name. From a very young age, she moves around the circus site much like the small animal from which she takes her nickname. She’s either scuttling from caravan to animal pen and back again or watching the world of the circus, crouched barefoot in the dirt and hidden beneath a wagon.
Despite being born into a famous circus family—both her beautiful but damaged mother and charismatic father perform acts—Mouse has anything but an easy life. Left to her own devices for reasons which only become apparent much later on, she roams the site like a stray until she’s taken in by Serendipity Wilson, the flame-haired funambulist.
Serendipity’s act takes her high above the Big Top crowds but she’s actually a strange mix of enchantress and earth mother. She not only teaches Mouse her act, but also tries to weave a protective web of stories and folklore around the child. Mouse relates these later when she comes to write her own life story in a letter to the journalist who interviews her, and I loved that these are included as separate chapters throughout A Girl Made of Air.
Nydia Hetherington conjures her circus to life through storybook characters like Big Gen and Fausto the Ringmaster, the visually dazzling acts Manu and Marina (Mouse’s parents) perform, and by taking us beyond the lights and noise of the Big Top. We see the circus after it empties of paying customers and before they arrive for the following day’s show and this is where the world of her book largely plays out for the circus years. We slip under the flaps of the Big Top with Mouse, shedding sequinned costumes, removing greasepaint, and tiptoe around barefoot from animal pens to the caravans and wigwams, overhearing snippets of stories and collecting dirt on the soles of our feet.
Mouse recreates her life story from diary entries, interviews, her own memory and memorabilia she’s collected but she’s a flighty character to pin down. It almost feels as if she’s walking another tightrope, weighing each word and balancing what to include with what she omits. It makes you wonder how reliable her recollection is and how much of it is coloured by her formative experiences or driven by her motivation behind relating it now at this stage of her life.
Mouse seems at her most vibrant when she’s performing but we hardly see any of her act until she leaves the circus. Once she steps off that tightrope and comes back down to earth, she dissolves into the shadows again and exists like some kind of haunted ghost woman. But just as Serendipity Wilson once noticed her in the circus, so too do others and when Mouse is drawn to Coney Island—home to the famous funfair— it’s Cubby who finds her. His Aunt Betty owns the most unusual boarding house but it’s one which was simply waiting for Mouse to stumble upon.
A Girl Made of Air takes us on an out-of-bounds tour of the circus world beyond the Big Top, laying bare everything the greasepaint, sequins, lights and flamboyant show usually conceal. It tells a story of abandonment, of love and loss, of the mystery behind a long-lost child with all the associated tragedy and trauma, while quietly piecing together the poignant puzzle of an extraordinary life. A Girl Made of Air is most of all a redemptive love letter, written more in hope of understanding than forgiveness, and I absolutely adored every minute of it.
A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington is published by Quercus Books. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out this time next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where every purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.