The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus
by Jaime Jo Wright
My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical suspense
Pippa, 1928 – Daughter of circus workers, abandoned and raised by the owner’s family, Pippa is now considered “circus royalty,” above the grit and grime of the circus, yet still feels like she belongs down in the community. Pippa has felt a presence nearby all of her life, watching her, protecting her, calling to her. When The Watchman, as she calls him, begins to step out of the shadows, Pippa will have to decide who to trust.
Chandler, present day – Niece of the new owner of the old circus train depot, Chandler is tasked with determining if the building is a candidate for renovation or if it should simply be demolished.
When the ghosts of the circus’s dark and foreboding past threaten Chandler in the present, she finds herself digging into the story of a serial killer who preyed on the circus in the past. But even in the present day, there’s a very real danger that leads Chandler to be uncertain of who she can turn to.
I had a very difficult time reviewing this book. The idea of an old-fashioned circus as the setting/backdrop, solving a bit of a mystery in the past that connects to the present, it all sounded really intriguing. And though the title certainly doesn’t scream Christian fiction, it’s billed as such. However, there is so much about this book that I struggled with, and in the end, I just don’t understand how it was released like this. I’m going to try to sort out my thoughts in sections below, to at least attempt to keep this review coherent.
Story – The past storyline on its own was decent, if a little muddled. The question of who The Watchman was and what he wanted from Pippa definitely kept me going throughout the book. There was not nearly as much exploration of circus life as I expected, as much of the story takes place in Pippa’s family’s house or in the elephant house, where Pippa is helping to care for an injured baby elephant. But that story on its own was pretty good, from beginning to end.
However, I found the present-day storyline completely pointless. I thought that, as the reader, some of the answers of the past mystery wouldn’t be revealed there in the past, but would come to light when discoveries were made almost 100 years later. I was wrong. It was basically an entire story in itself, with the past storyline a somewhat unnecessary background. And I didn’t like the present-day storyline at all. Seriously, Chandler just needed to put surveillance cameras in the buildings and that would’ve solved an awful lot of her trouble.
Characters – There’s an interesting dynamic between the two main characters. Chandler is fiercely independent, and Pippa is fiercely subordinate to all of the men in her life, even the one in the shadows, obeying his every secretive whim. And this is something the book did mostly well with, as both of these women found their way to a more neutral stance, allowing themselves to breathe a bit and have a bit more freedom. Overall, though, Chandler just drove me crazy. She had some issues that weren’t necessarily unrealistic, but man was she hard to like. In some ways, I felt like the only reason the author included her part of the story at all was so that she could create Chandler, who was perhaps a reflection of the author herself.
One glaring coincidence that I’m surprised more people aren’t bothered by is that both storylines have practically the exact same male romantic interest. They were both large, well-muscled, gruff, brooding men with long hair/beard, and even had the same basic goal driving them. Their names were even similar (Jake & Hank). The author even set up a really easy explanation for this coincidence, but then quickly shoved it aside and let it be just that–pure coincidence.
Writing – I don’t know who edited this book, but it needed a little more work. There were some strange inconsistencies here and there. For example, right from the first chapter, I got the feeling that Pippa was already accepted within the circus and its workers. It mentioned her dear friends in the circus, even listed them by name. Then we proceed through the story to find that most of these people she barely knows. Barely has met. Some of them barely acknowledge her or don’t like her (she’s “above” them, after all). If this was simply meant to show us that Pippa is delusional, imagining these people as her friends because she’s lonely, that never came across to me. Instead, I found myself wondering if the story was written out of order.
Additionally, Linda Pike is said to have disappeared when she was 12. Then later it says she went missing at 18. And I noticed an observation that Pippa made about Jake regarding how good he looked smoking a cigar that was then repeated, almost word-for-word, a few chapters later. There are others, and these aren’t tiny typos, but fairly noticeable mistakes, so many that it took me out of the story quite a bit.
Genre – Now for the thing that bothered me the most throughout the book. It’s listed as Christian fiction, and I’m not sure who decided that was a good idea. I get that for Christian authors, it can be difficult to find a good middle ground sometimes. You don’t necessarily always want to write a book where there’s a solid Christian message, but if you include any Christian talk, it’s deemed too religious to be secular. But wow, the characters were so incredibly confused about their own faith that it could easily leave a reader confused too. I think that if you’re going to write a book where there’s a hint that ghosts and hauntings might be real, and call it Christian, you should definitely come down on one side or the other about whether or not it was a real haunting. At least that way Christians who read the book can agree or disagree. But the “supernatural” events in the present day were really never explained, more just “hand-waved” away at the end. I was left feeling incredibly unsettled (not because it spooked me, but because it was so unpleasant), and I don’t think I’ll read another book by this author.
I don’t read only Christian books, and I don’t necessarily expect every book by a Christian author or in the Christian genre to have a solid Christian lesson or message. But to call it Christian and have one of your main characters this confused over what the Bible even says about what’s going on, or whether or not she should let a psychic contact the spirit world on her behalf, because maybe the psychic was sent by God and Chandler was wasting the opportunity because of a Sunday school lesson (wow!)…to me, this is not a good message anyone should be reading.
Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.
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