Nights At The Circus.
What a strange, wonderful frustrating beast it is.
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.
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
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