Saturday, April 21, 2012

Review: Life After a Day at the Circus

The Greatest Show: Stories
By Michael Downs

181 pages. Louisiana State University Press  (March 15, 2012)

Visit The Greatest Show here.
“What difference would one day make, one day away?”

Ania asks herself, and slips two circus tickets in the waistband of her skirt.

The Greatest Show collects ten poignantly crafted stories that showcase the difference one day can make. Connected by the 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, the powerful characters take center stage in stories spanning six decades.

The collection opens with Ania, the story of an immigrant housekeeper and her young family. With her husband, Charlie, overseas fighting the war, Ania steals two tickets and takes her three-year son Teddy to a matinee circus show. When a fire engulfs the main tent, they cannot escape the flames. Laced with raw emotion, Ania struggles to overcome her mistakes and adjust her expectations.

Ex-husband, Years Removed pulls mourners together for the funeral of a woman claimed by the fire. Her brother, Nick, and her former husband, Gal, reconnect and share their grief after the service. As old secrets rise out of the ashes, he finds a cathartic, new understanding of his still beloved ex-wife, his failed marriage and even himself. Gal’s sister, Lena, befriends Nick, foreshadowing romance to emerge from disaster.

The curious story of Mrs. Liszak weaves the visible facial scars of a long-ago fire with the invisible emotional scars of Suzanne, a thrice-abandoned teen. At the Beach paints the portrait of a budding affair. Downs repeatedly folds in unexpected elements with Elephant featuring the father-son relationship between Charlie and Teddy.

With The Greatest Show, Downs builds anticipation not unlike walking the tightrope. Modern-day performers and audience alike unite around incomprehensible events and begin to heal. Together, they form a collection of stories about remembering, forgetting, and the tenacity of our shared experience to pull us through the pain.

Surprisingly uplifting and replete with compassion, Downs reveals the dignity of the human spirit and our unyielding ability to love. Each piece stands alone; then slides into place in a larger jigsaw puzzle. Like performances in the big tent, every new act captivates with dazzling dexterity and complexity.

The Greatest Show explores the theme of visibility versus what is hidden from view: physical scars versus emotional injury. Captivated by life rather than loss, he breathes fresh air into his honest portrayal of relatable characters as readers settle in for a well-told story.
"Our sense of the day fades. We're left with a few facts, a recollection of dread and joy, and a sense that every damn thing disappears too quickly. Lucky us."

Lucky us, indeed.


  1. What a cool idea for a collection. I have a friend who is a circus freak. Not the kind that has two heads, the kind that loves any and all things circus. I'll have to let him know about this.

    1. I love how you felt it necessary to clarify the nature of your friend's freakiness. I like you. I must admit, this was my first collection of linked stories and I love the concept. Separate, but intertwined and all the richer for it. I hope he enjoys them as much as I did.

  2. Wow! It sounds like a fascinating collection! Not something you see every day, that's for sure.