Young Lilly Blackwood, hidden away since birth in her parents’ attic because of her albinism, is thrust into the role of sideshow freak. Lilly’s fanatical mother smuggles her away one night and sells her to Merrick, who runs the freak show in The Barlow Brother’s Circus. Delivered from one form of captivity into another, Lilly struggles to survive this new, confusing world. The kind embrace of the other freaks softens the cruelty from Merrick and even the “rubes” who pay to see the oddities.
In The Life She Was Given, Ellen Marie Wiseman paints two parallel portraits of women in the Blackwood family: Lilly, the daughter sold to the circus in the 1930s, and down-and-out Julia who inherits Blackwood Manor in the 1950s. As Julia attempts to blot out her childhood memories, the secrets of the Manor strain to reveal themselves to her, and she tries to make sense of the puzzle pieces of Lilly’s life. In the circus, Lilly finds a freedom unlike anything she’s ever known. Eventually, her skill with the elephants of The Barlow Brother’s Circus becomes a way for her to escape the inhumanity of the freak show and Merrick’s rage. She even finds love with a big top performer before one final gut-wrenching incident tears her new life apart.
While Wiseman excels at creating an atmosphere, there’s more telling than showing to her prose; her writing, while lively, gets bogged down in characters’ inner monologues that at times encumber the plot. Her characters are all vividly drawn and complex, especially Lilly’s abusive mother, Coralline. But at the heart of Wiseman’s tale of loss and redemption are Lilly and Julia, connected in spirit by their determination to overcome years of pain and sorrow.
Fans of Karen White and Sara Gruen will be drawn in by the drama and mystery of Wiseman’s novel.