Saturday, 5 September 2015
Book Review: The Enemy Within by Gary Nott - a circus adventure with a 70s twist.
Do you remember the Bay City Rollers, Look-In magazine and the Six Million Dollar Man?
Gary Nott’s circus adventure The Enemy Within is about a gang of ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds who turn detective in true kids’ fiction tradition. But while it’s clearly aimed at children in that age group, I reckon it will appeal just as much, if not more so, to those of us adults who were that age in 1975, the year the novel is set.
Within the first couple of pages, mentions of Henry Cooper splashing it all over in the Brut cologne adverts, and the Disney film One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing ticked all the nostalgia boxes for me. Yep, I saw that film and, just like the book’s heroes, went to a Wimpy bar afterwards.
Add dancing to Tiger Feet by Mud at the school disco and I was right back there.
Nott’s love for and knowledge of the circus shines from every page as he describes a big top arriving in Torquay for an extended summer season. The circus kids are dumped at the local school for the last few weeks of term where they feel like the outsiders they are. But they quickly make friends with four town kids led by Pete who hopes circus girl Natalie will be his first girlfriend.
But then things start to go wrong at the big top, and the animal rights protestors at the gates are the least of the circus’ problems. With aerialists plummeting from sabotaged ropes and animals set loose, the story is packed with incident.
One of the funniest scenes sees a family of four hiding in a phone box after seeing an escaped bear. “Find somewhere to hide,” they urge the kids who are looking for the bear, “and before you ask, there’s no room in here!”
There are no shortage of suspects for the kids to snoop on, either, from the grumpy clown with a grudge to the shifty elephant groom and the tiger trainer with debts.
I have to admit I guessed the villain early on, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book tremendously, including the denouement with its nod to Scooby Doo’s classic payoff (and another nostalgic titbit for us grown-ups), “I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for these pesky kids!”
I also enjoyed Nott’s even-handed treatment of the always thorny issue of animals in the circus, which is a central theme.
Pete is uncomfortable with the sight of the elephant trainer’s bullhook and the confined living spaces in the ‘zoo,’ but notes the lions have more space than the workers in the bunk wagon. He’s somewhat won over by the obvious love that the cat trainers have for their animals. But then he’s shocked by the Russian bear trainers’ rough treatment of their animals - and the way the circus kids accept it.
“The Popov Brothers are rough with their animals,” Yolanda admits. “Not all trainers are kind.”
“Does the gaffer know?”
“Yes, but the brothers are cheap to hire.”
In the event, the circus owner is persuaded to confront the bear keepers, but only under threat of more bad publicity his show can ill-afford. It’s a hollow victory for Pete, meanwhile, because the brothers leave and take their animals to another circus.
“Who’ll look out for them now?” he wonders.
Elsewhere, 12-year-old lion trainer’s son Timmy is resistant to the idea of providing an exercise enclosure when the cats sleep most of the day anyway: Putting up an exercise cage would mean effort and money - you’d have to buy a second cage and then spend time putting it up; he didn’t think it was practical at all.
“We know how to take care of our animals. We don’t need outsiders to tell us how to improve things,” he says, making clear the circus kids’ friendship with the town kids has limits.
Tumblers’ daughter Natalie, meanwhile, keeps her doubts about the animals to herself, knowing that to voice them would mark her as a traitor within a community under attack.
Seamlessly entwined in a children's adventure story, this is a brilliantly judged commentary on a complicated subject. Not anti-circus, or even anti-animals in circus, but precisely pinpointing the grey areas in a subject usually viewed in black and white, I frequently found Pete's reactions to the circus mirroring my own.
Buy it for your kids. Read it for yourself.
The Enemy Within by Gary Nott is published by Vanguard Press and available from Amazon.
Click here to read a preview.