Club for Aerialists and Clowns by Alison Dornan review – vintage page-turner

Flapper-era flying vaudeville set The Club for Aerialists and Clowns follows the story of four teenage girls who want to join a troupe of aerialists that “reserves the right to discuss femininity and to explore their feelings”. It’s a sweet little story about the love and companionship of friendship and home, though the drama and narrative conflict come more from the girls’ desire to be seen as “girly” and competitive rather than the position of their new road chameleon high school peers who, it transpires, were cursed to see a ribcage girl.

At a time when high school popularity and ritual dressing-up has been replaced by TV talent shows, general films and books about the travails of teenage girls, this is a great example of a book that’s very much of its time, both intellectually and aesthetically.

For those who don’t know this genre, it basically is about enraptured kids (or sometimes grownups) who aspire to be glamorous and artistic under the guise of giving a one-off a unique performance experience. For the host communities – circus, clowning, flamboyant and immersive theatre – it is a logical progression from touring street performances and exhibition and theme evenings. The role of the host: to make-believe they’re outside their comfort zone and where rules of decorum are bent at will.

Bouncing around on a 15lb caster. In minutes a normal handstand will give way to gravity. Photograph: guardian

The book seems to be hugely self-referential, as visitors on these occasions inevitably compare the entertainment they have been consuming to the renowned travelling circus performance as their experience now explores the rhythms of building sets and working within tight-knit teams to perform for crowds in an unfamiliar space.

There is, admittedly, a bit of the Girl With a Pearl Earring in this, as Anne seems to see herself as an artist who is doing what once was done by dancers, magicians and choral singers: breaking through the conventions of a typically stiff performance genre to create her own content, with the added joy that her children will now see a clown when they get home.

The book is definitely less hermetically-sealed than it was when first published as what, in the polite sense, is a travel memoir, but Anne’s lovely descriptions of her home, of the circus performers who perform at the home of the school, and the terrain for using as a playground are endearing and original.

The familiarity does cost Anne some of the mystery and atmosphere as she gets to know what it is like to travel with these circus performers: the culture and detail in the author’s writing and photography and the programmes/tickets/booths – there are really no door handles or points of sale. This is the perfect dress rehearsal of the apparently foreign worlds that these performers inhabit but the stories are still very much from the author’s private point of view and the little nuances made for our fevered memories make this an undeniably charming travel story.

Dornan is a talented artist and a talented musician, who has performed as an ensemble with Hot Hot Heat and with The Cocteau Twins

• Club for Aerialists and Clowns by Alison Dornan is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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