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Monday, 12 July 2010

Book Review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

First of all, I'd like to apologise for disappearing for a few weeks. Two bouts of illness in succession mixed in with pure exhaustion, I'm afraid. But at least I've got the sickness out of the way in one go - at least, that's the theory. Anyway, I'm back, and I've just finished reading a fantastic book.


Nights at the Circus is one of those books that people are told they should read. As a consequence, when I was told to do so for my Creative Writing class on my undergrad I refused on principle. I disliked my tutor intensely and this defiance felt like a mass rebellion for me. But, then, I always was the type to cut my nose off to spite my face.

Three years later I pulled the unopened book from my shelf and dubiously opened it. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself for letting my prejudice against one teacher cloud my judgement of a good book. (Incidentally, another of my favourites, Murphy by Samuel Beckett, was set on the same list and suffered the same treatment.)

Angela Carter is not an author to read by the pool. Every word, every image counts. If your attention slips you can find yourself reading the life history of an auxiliary character without realising it. Carter slips into character exposition that the unobservant reader won't even see it coming. More than that, her ruminations never seem superfluous. I trusted her completely and lapped up every observation she had to share. That kind of literary lusciousness may not be every reader's cup of tea but I couldn't get enough of it.

There are ostensibly three sections to the novel (though, as mentioned, Carter drifts into various character histories throughout leaving chronology a little unimportant). In London, a cynical journalist, Jack Walser, is interviewing Fevvers: the famous aerialiste, the Cockney Venus, the bird woman. Though the events of about a hundred pages take place over one night the way Carter weaves other voices into her narrative means it never grows stagnant.

The second section takes place in St.Petersburg as Walser joins the circus as a clown in order to stay closer to Fevvers. He's unlucky, becoming a human chicken and almost falling prey to a tigress during their stay in the city. Some of the most striking images of the novel occur in this section; my personal favourites being the moment Fevvers realises what precisely the Grand Duke expects to do with her and the moment Buffo, the head clown, actually tries to eat Walser, the human chicken. It's a grotesque scene which affords a shudder every time precisely because madness is that surreal.

Finally, the circus ends up in Siberia. The most poignant observation of the novel comes in an explanation that, at first glance, seems completely unrelated to the events of the novel thus far. Carter suddenly diverts into a House of Correction, a home for female murderers and the like where they suffer more than in prison or on the gallows. Although it feels like a massive deflection from the plot, the reader should've grown to trust Carter's diversions by now. I had and wasn't disappointed with the progression of the plot.

I'm determined not to ruin the highlights of the novel for anyone who hasn't read. That makes a review rather redundant, I suppose, but the book is well worth reading. Don't see it as a chore or something to be endured. Carter's preoccupation with fairy-tales and grotesque images mixed in with a compelling cast of characters is something to savour.


Natalievintagegirl said...

This was on my to-read list already. has now moved up in the world to a higher place on that list.great review

CharmedLassie said...

Excellent, I hope it doesn't disappoint! I'd be interested to know whether you like it.