The JRB presents an excerpt from Sisters of the Circus, the debut novel by Laila Manack.
Sisters of the Circus
Penguin Random House SA, 2022
Considering the night they’d both had, morning practice unfolded about as well as could be expected. The blisters peppered across Kahina’s palms were merciless, and her constant yawning didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the team. While in the air, she released the trapeze and Noor’s hands on multiple occasions, and plunged onto the net below. The sharp pain was unbearable.
Halfway through practice, she ran to her trailer to retrieve bandages, wrapping them around her palms and wrists to avoid direct contact. She stubbornly ignored her throbbing ankle, settling for a less graceful stance in her routines, running through her paces with unpointed toes. I’ll be polished when it really matters.
‘How’s the ankle?’ Noor asked as they pulled their shoes on.
Kahina shrugged and pursed her lips. ‘Could be better, but there’s only so much pain I can focus on at once,’ she said, rolling her eyes. She pulled the elastic band from her hair and shook her dark curls out of her topknot.
For performances, Garret insisted they braid their waist-length hair instead of tying it completely out of the way. ‘It’s more exotic,’ he’d claimed when Kahina had argued that long braids might be a dangerous element to add to already death-defying performances. ‘You’ll appeal more to audiences who’ve never seen people like you.’
Instead of heading back to their trailer after practice, the twins took a detour.
On entering the trailer, the girls found Dadi prostrating herself on her musal’ah in the corner of the room. Out of respect, they settled onto Dadi’s bed and remained silent, waiting for her to finish. When they were younger, the girls would imitate the motions Dadi made during prayers, wrapping pants around their heads and mouthing words before they were old enough to learn the suraahs by heart.
Zaitun, or ‘Dadi’, acted as guardian to every young child bought by the circus. Kahina and Noor had been bought at four years old, and had practically been raised by her. They called her ‘Dadi’, an endearment that she said meant ‘grandmother’ in Hindi—one of the languages that still fell effortlessly from her lips all these years later. It was one of the last remnants of the home she’d escaped as a teenager.
Dadi had been born in India, as the girls were. But while Dadi had joined the circus voluntarily, Kahina and Noor’s choice had been made for them. Noor always suspected that Dadi knew more about the family from which they’d been abducted than she led them to believe, but any enquiries were met with a feigned coughing fit from Dadi, or vague complaints about her being late for one of her five namaaz.
Finally, seated on the ground with her knees underneath her, Dadi turned her head to one shoulder, then the other, signalling the end of her namaaz. She removed the burgundy headscarf she wore, and turned to greet them, her smile emphasising the wrinkles under her hazel eyes. She often reminded Kahina of an elf—slight and cunning. She was such a feeble woman, yet she never failed to brighten a room.
‘My girls,’ she said, and gestured to them to help her up. Kahina jumped off the bed and shifted past her sister through the limited space between the bed and wall. She offered her hands to Dadi, pulling till the old woman was standing, then bent to plant a kiss on her baby-soft cheek.
On performance days, a small tent was set up next to the main one, specifically for Dadi (or Zaitun, as she was introduced to the crowds) to tell fortunes. Of course, Dadi possessed no gift for fortune-telling, or reading tarot cards, or whatever it was Garret believed would tickle the audience’s fancy that night.
When Dadi had fled her home as an adolescent and found a circus, she’d displayed great potential for performing with animals. After a tragic fall off a horse had left her knee mangled, however, she’d lain incapacitated for two months. She’d told the girls how helpless she’d felt when she’d heard rumours about the ways in which useless cargo got disposed of in travelling shows. Circuses are, first and foremost, businesses. If you’re unable to pull your weight, you’re a liability.
Thankfully, the circus owner who’d hired her wasn’t the type to toss people off moving trains when they were no longer of service to him. But a businessman he remained, and since she could no longer perform, he’d sold her for pennies to the first person who’d offered. That had happened to be Garret. He’d been in need of something (or someone) to add an air of mystery and intrigue to his production. Zaitun looked the part, he’d decided. And the fact that he hadn’t asked her to change her name was a small victory.
‘How was training this morning?’ Dadi asked, stroking Noor’s cheek fondly as she got closer.
Noor rolled her eyes and scowled in response. Kahina stared at her own strapped wrists, fidgeting with the bandages.
‘You always ask that question when you know what the answer is,’ Noor complained.
Dadi slapped her cheek lightly, teasing. ‘That’s because I’m waiting for some positivity,’ she said. She turned to Kahina and asked, ‘What about you? Your sister says practice was terrible and you’re not going to argue?’
Kahina allowed Dadi a tiny smile without saying a word.
The old woman glanced at Noor and made a face. ‘Did Chai pee in her shoes again?’
Noor barked a laugh and said, ‘She’s just sour because it’s fitting day.’
Performers at Cirque du Ciel got measured for costumes regularly. Kahina’s experiences with the circus’s seamstresses had transpired abysmally.
She was usually more comfortable within the bounds of the circus because outside, she and Noor turned heads and provoked whispers wherever they journeyed. In the ring, she felt in control. She could tell herself people stared because they were in awe of her skill and agility, not the colour of her skin. Somehow, when she changed out of her costume and walked the streets among others, she was ever-conscious of strangers’ eyes glued to them—more so than if she were in the ring. The irony was almost laughable.
This wasn’t to say that she and Noor weren’t forced to endure narrowmindedness when interacting with people outside of performances. The first time the twins stepped through the door and the assistant seamstress audibly gasped, Kahina had swallowed slowly and glanced at her sister, who’d cleared her throat. The woman had ushered them in and uttered nothing more on the subject, but they’d caught her reaction and they knew what it meant.
Kahina’s interactions with the seamstresses, however, had been altogether different to her sister’s.
‘Ah, don’t pay those hags any mind,’ Dadi said, waving her hand as if she were shooing a fly. ‘Can Eve do a double-back-twist ten metres in the air?’
Kahina’s mouth quirked at the mention of a recent achievement of which she was particularly proud. It had taken her months to perfect it.
‘No? Then what your body looks like is no concern of hers.’
‘Damn right it’s not,’ Noor agreed.
‘You two are so melodramatic,’ Kahina said.
‘So how are the blisters?’ Dadi asked.
‘What? I didn’t tell you I had blisters.’
‘Well, you won’t stop fidgeting. How could I not notice?’ Dadi scolded, gesturing to Kahina’s hands.
The young artist sighed and began to carefully unwind the bandages.
Dadi frowned at Kahina’s left hand; it was still wrapped up, but a spot of deep red was seeping through, stark against the white bandages. ‘You’re bleeding,’ Dadi stated, taking her hand and untying the bandage.
Kahina shrugged. ‘If I panicked every time I saw blood, I’d faint at least once a month.’
Noor cringed and shook her head disapprovingly, a face Kahina was met with every time she cracked a joke her sister found dreadfully unfunny.
‘Come on, that was gold!’ Kahina argued, punching her sister’s arm, then wincing at the ache in her hand.
The old woman handed her a salve and instructed her to apply it every morning before practice.
‘I don’t need this; we’re seeing the doctor in two weeks,’ Kahina said.
‘And what are you going to do when your skin starts peeling off your bones tomorrow?’ said Dadi. Her accent grew sharper when she scolded them.
Kahina shot Noor an amused look and took the tin of ointment. Dadi’s patience was tested so easily, it was almost fun.
‘Now, off to your fitting. And show some skin. Leave them wanting more,’ Dadi said, winking at Kahina as she opened the door. Dadi had lived decades more than they had, but at times she seemed the youngest of them all.
- Laila Manack is a South African English teacher and scrunchie enthusiast. When she’s not writing, she can be found jetsetting, sending TikToks of cats to unwilling recipients, or rewatching The Greatest Showman. Sisters of the Circus is her first novel.
As Noor pulled the curtain back and stepped up to the mirror to view herself, she gasped.
She looked as if she’d been dipped in liquid gold. The fabric moulded to her like a second skin. Each time she twisted and turned the light reflected off her body like the ocean at sunset. The attendant handed her gold cuffs to slip onto her ankles. She dragged a chair to face the mirror and sat down to watch her sister’s reaction. Kahina’s eyes widened as she gave her body a once-over.
Trapeze-artist twins Kahina and Noor are one of a kind. Kidnapped from their home in India, they were sold to a travelling circus in Europe at four years old. Now it’s the Roaring Twenties, the girls are twenty-one, and they want to escape their circus trailer and abusive ringmaster and make their way to India to find their birth parents.
The circus world is all they know: the daily drills in technique; the fittings for sumptuous costumes that will make their dark complexions shine and keep customers rolling up to buy tickets; the blue-and-white striped tent with its coloured lights and the smell of popped kernels and melted caramel wafting through the stands; and their renowned double act: two young women leaping, tumbling and soaring above the audience.
Yet beyond its glamour, Garret’s circus is rife with cruelty. You’re only as good as your last trapeze act, and secrets behind the curtain are sinister enough to kill.
When Kahina is forced to train a handsome new recruit in the art of trapeze work, his disdain for rules pushes her out of her comfort zone and ignites a sequence of events that threaten to force the sisters apart.
Laila Manack’s debut novel is a vivid tale of the power of sisterhood and womanhood, trust and self-worth, flying and falling and getting up again, no matter what.