Book review: The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough

I’ve always held a fascination for the circus. I wanted to run away to one when I was a kid – it was a toss up between becoming a trick rider or a lion tamer. When I joined a circus as a young adult I became an acrobat for a time and it was a lot of fun. Needless to say when I saw The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by journalist Robert Hough, I HAD to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

If I stop to describe exactly how scared I was every time something scary happens, we’ll be here for the next ten years. So do me a favour. At parts like this imagine how you’d’ve felt, and we’ll both do fine.

Hough scoured the archives for information about Stark and built a fictional story around the facts he discovered, draughting a novel that serves as a fictional suicide note.

There ain’t a problem on this great green earth helped by feeling sorry for yourself.

Born Mary Haynie, we meet Stark when she was a nurse in Louisville. She soon found herself on the other side of the ward after being institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital for rebelling against her husband (as was common in the day). After a psychiatrist got a crush on her and and helped her escape, she fled to Tennessee and became Little Egypt, a belly dancer with the Great Parker Carnival. She was rescued from dancing by circus owner AL G. Barnes at 23 and learnt to work with tigers from the shows animal trainer who fell for her. The story follows Mabel’s rise to fame with her Bengal tiger Rajah who she raises from a cub.

We all have our battle scars, Kentucky. The ones who wear them on the outside are just a little more honest about it, that’s all.

Mabel was one of the most famous tiger trainers in history, doing manoeuvres that no one thought possible. She was the finale act during the heyday of the Ringling brothers circus in the 1920s and 30s, then committed suicide after being forcibly retired as she was turning 80 in 1968.

The character of Mabel is straight talking, sassy and opinionated about life, tigers and her many husbands. Her brutally honest confessions told with a wry sense of humour are compelling, as is her determination and survival instinct. It’s a rip roaring tale and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ride if you get on board.

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