Book review: The Pilo Family Circus

Laughs mixed with terror

The Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliott, Quercus, €16.15.
Published Sunday, February 25, 2007 – The Sunday Business Post

Reviewed by Alex Meehan

For most people, a trip to the circus is fun, a chance to escape to a shiny, happy place full of smiles and laughter. Not for Jamie though – for him the circus will never be the same again.

At the start of The Pilo Family Circus, Jamie is a twenty-something Aussie living in a shared house with not much to show for his life – no girlfriend, no job, and not much in the way of a backbone. All that changes when he accidentally stumbles across a trio of clowns up to no good late one night in a Brisbane suburb.

Stalked, harassed and finally auditioned against his will, Jamie is carried off by psycho clown Gonko and his sidekicks Goshy and Doopy of the Pilo Family Circus. It turns out that the Pilos are recruiting and whether he likes it or not, Jamie has been chosen as their newest clown.

But Pilo’s is no ordinary circus and these are no ordinary clowns. Presided over by the demonic Kurt and George, the circus functions as staging point between hell and the real world, existing in a netherworld into which unsuspecting members of the public are lured to be harvested. The clowns play a lead role, with their ultra-violent performances and viciously dark and twisted humour. Elsewhere in the circus, dwarves, acrobats, fortune tellers and magicians lie in wait for the nightly ‘tricks’ to wander in from the outside world.

Initially, Jamie is shocked and stunned by the hellish nature of the circus, and he scrapes by on terror and adrenaline as he learns his new role and how to avoid the monstrous and grotesque freaks that populate the fairground.

The story takes a twist when Jamie gets made up with magic face paint that turns him into his alter-ego – JJ the Clown.

JJ takes to his new role with gusto, becoming the most enthusiastically psychotic clown of all, and the stage is set for an epic battle as Jamie and JJ’s split personalities struggle for supremacy. The plot takes side diversions into inter-circus rivalries, as the clowns attempt to take out the acrobats and finally shut a meddling fortune teller down, but essentially Jamie’s story is of his struggle to come to terms with JJ’s actions and his attempt to escape the circus.

Meanwhile, we get to explore just exactly what makes up a clown. In the real world, clowns are the children’s favourite – most people see them as delightful, whimsical entertainers, but there’s a shadowy side, and many others see them as deeply sinister perversions, with their grotesque painted faces and comedy footwear.

Needless to say JJ the clown, along with head clown Gonzo and the others at the Pilo Family Circus owe a lot more to Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King’s IT than they do to the children’s favourite Bobo or even the Simpson’s Krusty.

There is a spark of originality here and the story drives itself along well, while also heavily referencing the kinds of worlds loved by Terry Pratchett and Stephen King.

There is also a healthy dose of The League of Gentlemen – take the wrong path at The Pilo Family Circus and you could easily bump into Papa Lazarou lurking down a dark alley. However, this is essentially a light-hearted book. There is an anarchic joy to be taken in the twisted humour and The Pilo Family Circus is escapist in the literal meaning of the word.

It manages to be edgy while also being genuinely funny and scary without descending into the cliches of the horror genre.

As a debut, this is outstanding: well conceived and well written. The Pilo Family Circus is certainly worth a visit, but hang on to your candy floss – the ride can get bumpy.

Taken from The Sunday Business Post

3 Comments
  1. The feel of the book starts out with sick, slapstick violence that makes you laugh out loud; my fellow commuters must be convinced I am mad when they see me laugh when reading a book with an evil clown on its cover. But what begins as slapstick violence, quickly turns much darker.

    As a whole, The Pilo Family Circus is an original and powerful tale and I think I’ll have to read it a few times more to fully understand the greater meaning of the story. I feel there is one, but just haven’t worked it out yet.

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