Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

by R.C.

After a three-year hiatus of reading exactly what I want, when I want, Nights at the Circus was the second book I decided to pick up. I’d been having some trouble getting into the swing of things; after my dissertation my mind seemed to work at two polar extremes: “READ ALL THE BOOKS!” at one end, and “Mmm… I’ll pick it up later” at the other. I’m quite certain that I have Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus to thank for restoring my mental status quo when it comes to reading. I simply couldn’t put it down, and when I had to I’d spend the intervening hours anticipating picking it up again.

The plot concerns Fevvers, or “The Cockney Venus”, as she’s billed on the posters for Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is peroxide blonde, over six feet tall and, unlikely enough, makes her living as a world-famous aerialiste at the turn of the nineteenth century. One more thing you should know (and I use the term “know” in the most relaxed sense possible) about Fevvers: she has wings.

The story opens as Fevvers charms journalist Jack Walser with her life story during an interview in her London dressing room. Hatched from an egg, raised in a brothel, conned into slavery by the owner of an erotic freak show, and finally led to the trapeze by an old acquaintance, Fevvers’ story requires the ultimate suspension of disbelief. Walser, being rather cynical, is unaccustomed to this sort of demand and joins the circus to uncover the truth, whatever it may be.

Taking us through Russia and Siberia, Carter introduces us to a veritable menagerie of eccentric characters (she does have a whole circus to get through) and their weird and wonderful back stories. A stretch of the imagination to begin with, Carter’s narrative moves further and further from reality as the novel progresses, and is all the more charming for it.

The novel, much in line with Carter’s usual style, is distinctly postmodern, and full to the brim with magical realism. The surreal playfulness of Nights at the Circus, along with the generally transitory feeling of the novel, works as a vehicle for Carter to contend with issues of individualism and the need for connection, feminism, time and reality. Towards the end of the novel, Carter invokes Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon quite literally. The women of the prison, however, are able to escape due to the silent yet powerful bonds developed between the guards and the inmates, proposing an optimistic and feminist possibility for escape from modern disciplinary society.

Carter’s prose is magnetic and lyrical, her story captivating and her characters totally enchanting. Just as Fevvers walks the tight rope between fact and fiction, Carter skilfully creates a prose that is simultaneously fabulously entertaining and deeply sincere.

Top line: “In a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world.”

You won’t find elsewhere: Waltzing tigers, fortune-telling pigs, a beautiful and detailed deconstruction of clowning, a cockney version of the winged victory.

Low point: If you’re not accustomed to reaching for your dictionary on occasion, Carter’s style may not be for you.