No 718 Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter

Nights At The Circus.

What a strange, wonderful frustrating beast it is.

circus

Not unlike its central character and beating heart Sophie Fevvers – half woman, half bird, all phenomenon, a world famous aerialist, hovering between worlds, countries and centuries, beloved of princes and painted by Toulouse Lautrec.

The opening third of this weird and often wonderful book is, without doubt, a tour de force. In Fevvers dressing room, she regales journalist, Jack Walser with the story of her life to date, from her foundling beginnings in a brothel, through working in an ice-cream shop and a museum for monstrous women, to her abduction and potential sacrifice to an occult god. Sophie is vulgar and graceful in equal measure and her tale soars on her wings, overturning all the fairy tales you know and love, touching of myth and magic and featuring some truly unforgettable characters and vignettes. The reader becomes

…like a kitten tangling up in a ball of wool it had never intended to unravel in the first place…

 

I didn’t want it to end and like Jack, would have sat all night while the clock continued to strike midnight every hour, beguiled by her fantastical tale. The language is dense and thick, loaded with meaning and nuance; it’s not a book to dip into, rather to be absorbed by. Fevvers tale is pure performance and as told through her throaty, rude, sentimental and genuine voice, it is truly gripping.

The book’s grip slipped for me a little in the following sections of the book when Walser decides to join the circus on a Grand World Tour through St Petersburg and then Siberia. There are some magnificent set-pieces – a daring escape by model train and a visit to a woman’s prison – but for me it didn’t all come together. I missed London and I missed Fevvers voice. There was a distance to the later sections of the book and I often felt that the set pieces became vehicles for the novel’s themes, rather than the fantastical organic tales of the opening section.

Gender, self, performance, modernity, and narrative – all the big themes are here and while they seem to have preoccupied critics, Carter avoids any straight interpretation or political viewpoint. The female characters of Nights At The Circus are wonderful, challenging creations who veer from strong to fragile, emotional to contradictory. There are no archetypes here, as with the book as a whole, they are intricately realised and not easily forgettable. The narrative works on so many levels, exploring the boundary between fact and fiction, performance and narrative. As they go from the dressing room to the stage, the novels band of characters become entangled in their on and off stage personas as they fight for control in a world that wants to label them and box them neatly up. As Walser says of Fevvers;

For, in order to earn a living, might not a genuine bird woman – in the implausible event that such a thing exists – have to pretend she was an artificial one?

 

The novel’s fascinating premise is that we are all performing. We are all like Fevvers – half human, half animal – deciding who will see what side of us and when, all slave to the curiosity of the other.

Despite my misgivings about the latter sections of the book, what I find wonderful about Carter’s writing is the layers she offers up. At a basic level, this is a playful, rollicking magical tale that can be appreciated for its language, characterisation and the breathtakingly original world it creates. Yet it is so much more besides, exploring a feminist agenda and examining the structures by which we control how we are seen and what that makes us become.

It’s a joyous read, laugh out loud funny, crude, frightening, mesmerising and above all entertaining. It will stay with me for a long time and I doubt will be the last Angela Carter book I read.

 

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I read this as part of Angela Carter week hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and I am so grateful to them for pointing me in the direction of this fascinating book!

 

If anyone wants to read-a-long on my next Book of Summer, I’m starting The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan.

 

Read On: iPad

Number Read: 29

Number Remaining: 717

20 Books of Summer The 746

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I find that Carter’s longer fiction often tapers off, or the end arrives too abruptly. Sometimes I think that maybe she just ran out of steam after unleashing her wild imagination and letting it run riot. However, although I think that Carter’s work is somewhat demanding for the reader, it is also always so deep and rich and very rewarding. I’m glad you liked the book and I really enjoyed reading your post.

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    • Thanks Violet. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, far from it, but as you say, it ran out of steam a little. Plus, I had so loved the first third that I almost wished the whole novel could have just been told from Fevvers point of view.

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    • Funny, when I started book blogging and reading around other people’s blogs, her name kept popping up everywhere! Angela Carter week was the push I needed to give her a go and I’m really glad I did.

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  2. I’m so glad you liked this and describe it so well. I’m very tempted to pick it up soon. I felt similar when I read T
    he Magic Toyshop. The beginning was so enthralling and enchanting, I didn’t want it to end. Although the rest was good as well it was paler in comparison.
    Isn’t it funny, I held The Spinning Heart in my hands yesterday. I’d love to join you but I have to read my end of month Lit and War readalong book first. But at least I know who to discuss it with. 🙂

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    • Thank you Caroline, if it wasn’t for your challenge I don’t know when I would have got round to the Angela Carter. I enjoyed it so much. I have The Magic Toyshop too. Sounds like you have enough reading going on, but do check back in when you get round to The Spinning Heart!

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  3. Oh wow this sounds incredible and what a brilliant review Cathy! I’ve seen this book dotted about on the internet, but I’ve never thought to pick it up, but I have to say after reading your review I’ve changed my mind. The premise that “we are all performing” is definitely one that intrigues me, especially as I come from a theatrical background and this notion is one that I am particularly familiar with, so I’m fascinated to see how Carter addresses it. A lovely review.

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    • Thanks so much Lottie! My background is in theatre and drama too, so maybe that’s why it appealed to me. I do hope you enjoy it if you do read it, the opening section is worth it alone!

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  4. I love Angela carter, having studied The Bloody Chamber in school over the last few years i have been reading a lot of her stuff. Its so refreshingly different and though it can be dark it is usually good fun!

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  5. I’ve only ever tried her short stories, but you’ve made this novel sound intriguing.
    I’d love to read The Spinning Heart but I’m not sure I can fit it in just now – I’ve heard wonderful things about it.

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  6. Excellent review! I have been on the fence about trying this particular Carter book, as I am not as much a fan of circus-related stories as I know many readers are, but you’ve really sold it to me. It really sounds as if the author’s mastery of metaphor is in fine form here.

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  7. Like you, I found the first part of the book the best. Then it got too complicated and I got tangled up in all that symbolism. Carter should have been an Amazon, brandishing her sword, protecting her community of women.
    I’m glad you liked it and thanks for participating in this event with us.

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  8. Nights at the Circus is my favourite Angela Carter Book. It’s a shame you found the latter sections not as good as the first, though Fevvers is such a mesmerising and larger than life character. I chose to study this novel as part of my dissertation and it is just fascinating picking out all the layers to it.

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      • I think that’s why I loved it so much. I remember reading it for the first time when I was younger and really enjoying it, though it wasn’t until I studied it that I really appreciated what Angela Carter was doing. It amazes me how much she can layer into a text!

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  9. Oh, it’s 1 a.m and I cannot sleep. I have not one, but two piles of to-be-read books but none of them fits my mood because I have realized that I want to read NIghts at the Circus. So, I got up and checked my Feedly for the first time in a while to find your review and the quote that almost got me running to my school library:

    “Gender, self, performance, modernity, and narrative – all the big themes are here”

    I tried some of Angela Carter’s short stories earlier this year and I found them so complex and so innovative! I was directed to Night at the Circus by actress Gemma Arterton who loved it and would love to direct a screen adaptation of the novel. I know this seems like a shallow way to get recommendations out of, but she is a feminist actress and I usually trust her tastes 🙂

    Thanks for the review, I just bookmarked it for when I read it 🙂

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  10. I thought that your review was so brilliant that I borrowed the book from the library and read it as fast as I could (not all that fast considering that I’m devoting most waking hours not taken by work, family and socialising/exercise to watching the FIFA World Cup. However this book was so great that I even read it instead of watching some of the captivating football). I tried to write my own review and realised that you had already said much of what I would have wanted to say. I did manage a small, pale Mignon of a post compared to your captivating Fevvers of a post 😉

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