Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter

Sophie Fevvers: Flight or Fancy? Fevvers (as she is affectionately called) is a celebrated aerialiste, a larger-than-life trapeze artist of the most unique kind: she has wings. The public adore her, madmen want to make a human(?) sacrifice of her, Grand Dukes attempt seduction. Who is she, though? And more importantly - is she real? Such are the questions on the lips of American journalist Jack Walser, who decides to depart from his familiar territory of war & disaster reporting, and concentrate on a more 'human interest' angle. Initially, he interviews Fevvers simply for her 'thus far' story, but decides it is not enough and, thinly disguised as a clown, joins the circus of which she is a star performer and follows her to Petersburg and beyond. I'd like to say "hilarious consequences ensue", but in Nights At The Circus the hilariousness of the events that unfold (and there ARE moments of extreme hilarity) is outweighed, for the most part, by shock, gruesomeness, and all-too-serious ridiculousness.

A book that seems at first glance to be a bit of a fancy turns into a much more serious look at psyche, tribalism, cruelty, endurance, love, and the absurd. From what I gleaned from the intro by Sarah Waters that preceded the edition I read, Carter's writing is often like this. She is spoken of as a 'magical realist', and I can see why - but I think this novel is a bit like an ocean - sparkly and wondrous on top but with dark, hidden depths of endless foreboding possibility. The 'magical' element is more of an enchantment, and certainly not a flimsy, Potter-esque sorcery. Waters opines in her intro that Nights At The Circus is Carter's masterpiece; and also the most 'engaging and accessible' of her fictions, which very much intrigues me to read some of Carter's other work.

It is a huge novel; geographically spanning from London to Siberia but also the characters emotional journeys are diverse and all-encompassing. Carter's writing has an odd and unique style - she is a queen of metaphor, a lover of detail and a master of significance; foretelling; symbolism. Some paragraphs are so lush they hook you right in to their seams, some are so bland they reel you out to their perimeters. At times I was smiling, laughing, wincing, gasping, praying - eyes glued to the page, willing them with all my might not to skip ahead in anticipation... I mean, not every chapter was compelling, some were downright listless, but once again, I am loath to criticise as when you reach the end of a good book, you realise even the bits you didn't like reading at the time were just necessary elements of the incredible whole.

The characters are colourful and sometimes astounding - I suppose that almost automatically comes with the setting of a circus. I remember (like most kids?) wanting to run away with the circus when I was little, after I read a book set in one, but Carter did not glamourise or romanticise the circus in that way. It became appealing seeing it through Walser's eyes, (he DID run away with the circus) - the dirt, the animosity, chimps wearing clothes, tigers dancing, elephants stamping their chained feet, clowns endlessly tumbling and playing, music everywhere, the wondrous and spectacular becoming the 'norm', the extreme characters, the buzz and frivolity of the routine... all rolled up into one bright, bustling, vibrant, multicoloured mass of molecular dazzle - a Circus. Although Fevvers, her foster-mother Lizzie, and Walser are all intensely interesting characters - it was the Circus itself which stole my attention the whole way through making the rest fall under its brilliant light. I liked Nights At The Circus, even though the plot sometimes disagreed with me, and I was occasionally confused. I like that it was different, exciting, weird and wonderful. I like what I came to know of Angela Carter, and hope to explore her work further. I recommend it if you're looking for something a little different, with plenty of rich language and stories within stories; bizarre characters and iridescent settings. I think it is essentially feminist: Fevvers comes into her own and kicks off all labels and categories, to finally speak for herself.... which, of course, resonated with me.

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