If you've ever wondered what it's like to run away with the circus, Kathleen Cremonesi's vivid memoir Love In The Elephant Tent will let you live the experience vicariously. In the very first line, we "duck under" the canvas with her and find ourselves in the tent where a line of chained elephants sway rhythmically "as if dream-marching in space."

As an elephant inspects the young American woman who's entered their musky domain, the breath from its trunk "felt like someone had turned a vacuum cleaner on my face." The beast exhales and, "wet fermented air whooshed past me."

Love story

Cremonesi joined the circus in her early 20s, during a back-packing trip through Europe in the late 1980s. Travelling through Spain and Italy with the famous Circus Moira Orfei, she danced in the show, rode elephants, fed lamas and a giraffe and fell in love with Stefano, the handsome Italian elephant keeper.

Cremonesi's account of the circus being dismantled before she leaves town with it for the first time is one of the most invigorating descriptions of backstage life that I have ever read.

You can almost hear the rumbling lorries and taste the grit as Stefano emerges from a dust cloud and tethers a zebra to the bumper of a truck.

Unfortunately, Cremonesi falls out of love with the circus quite quickly. She doesn't like dancing. She hates the gossip and lack of privacy. She resents the regimented toil that comes between her and spending time with her new boyfriend.

"I didn't mean to sound like a spoilt American," she writes at one point. But, sadly, she does. Her negative attitude makes her wearisome company for parts of the book and as her enthusiasm for her environment wanes some of her memoir's early promise recedes.

Swimming with sharks

Cremonesi was always up for a challenge, however, and when she's conscripted to ride an ostrich and swim in a tank with two sharks, her ability to put us right there in the moment with her brings the book back to life.

Like a real life version of Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants - which was turned into a 2011 film starring Reese Witherspoon - Cremonesi's book is as much love story as circus story. Her relationship with Stefano is strained by his Italian belief that a "weemun's" work is to cook and clean - which our heroine wants no part of. The domestic drama has a gritty feel - there's no glamour behind the scenes of a travelling circus. After an unexpected twist, however, the final stretch of their story is as gripping as any romance novel, and makes up for some of the less involving sections earlier.

Animal welfare

The subject of Animals in the circus is always contentious. Looking back on her adventure, twenty-five years later, Cremonesi has come down against their use for entertainment. Part of the proceeds of her book are going to elephant sanctuaries in America and Thailand.

The portrait she paints of a life with circus animals is complex, however. Even in her youth, Cremonesi railed against a sideshow photographer who kept a van full of baby animals for pictures with children. When the animals became sick in their squalid conditions, or just grew too old, they were callously dispatched and replaced.

By contrast, she describes Stefano's love and dedication to his elephants. He believes they shouldn't be in the circus but because they are he tries to make their confinement as comfortable as possible - and they clearly reciprocate his affection.

Whatever your views on circus animals, Cremonesi's experiences will definitely provide food for thought. Her book is recommended reading for anyone who wants to know what life in the circus is really like.

Love In The Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi is published in hardback by ECW Press.