Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 350 (Paperback)
Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?
Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extrodinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American Journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earlier this year and a big part of that enjoyment was the writing style which was verbose and beautiful but also honest and dirty and not at all ‘flowery and delicate’, thick with references and heavy with unusual and striking descriptions that transformed the everyday and even the crude into the magical. Nights at the Circus is like that, but more so. More so to the point of absolute suspension-of-disbelief-shattering distraction, in fact. Maybe it’s just that what works for me in a short story just seems too much when sustained over the course of a whole novel, but I found this book very hard to get into. As much as I wanted to like and get a grip on the characters and the story everything simply felt overpowered by the writing. Even when stuff was going on – and a lot of stuff happened in this book – it felt like I was reading something that was all style over substance.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or that the writing didn’t contain some absolutely beautiful descriptions, but I didn’t enjoy the book anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.
Nights at the Circus tells the story of Fevvers, a tall, brash, cockney woman with the wings of a swan sprouting from her back, through her meeting with Jack Walser, a restless, blandly handsome and blandly personalityless American journalist. Fevver’s is the toast of the town when Walser first meets her for an interview, an internationally famous aerialiste in the travelling circus, painted by famous artists, admired by the Prince of Wales, and subject to excited speculation as to whether she really was hatched from an egg or is simply a fabulous conwoman. Walser starts the novel determined to prove that it’s the latter, finds himself falling for her (no spoiler, it’s in the blurb!), and up and joins the circus himself to pursue the story and uncover the mystery behind Fevvers’ wings – or so he tells himself.
It’s a bizarre, weird, and frequently quite funny picaresque novel in three parts split up very distinctly by location, theme, and even narrative style. The first part ‘London’ tells the story of Fevver’s early life before joining the circus and is done almost exclusively through dialogue. It’s Walser’s first interview with her and so there are frequent breaks for description and reactions set in the present, but the majority of it is backstory told in Fevver’s own words with occasional interruptions by her audience. And this is where I first found Carter’s style started to grate. Possibly I simply don’t know enough truly charismatic people, but Carter’s very beautiful and distinctive writing style just sounds all wrong when coming directly from the mouth of a character rather than the narrator. I kept going ‘really? that was the most natural way you could think of to get that message across’. I gave benefit of the doubt, allowing for the fact that Fevvers is a very charismatic character and had rehearsed all this for her interview, but in the next two sections when other characters all started talking in this very verbose, unnatural, reference heavy way my suspension of belief just snapped. What works in narration doesn’t always work for dialogue and when , with a very few exceptions, all characters, regardless of background or education, tend to speak the same I tend to get super tired of it super fast.
Never the less, I enjoyed the story of Fevver’s early life. It was probably the part that most resembled what I liked about The Bloody Chamber, a decadent gothic tale of whorehouses, freak-shows, and female solidarity. The second section, Petersburg, however, is where the story really came together for me. The narrative balance shifts back more in favour of the omniscient third person narrator and the story shifts almost to a series of vignettes about the various colourful characters that inhabit the circus – Colnel Kearney and his fortune-telling pig, Buffo the clown, Mignon the Ape Man’s wife, the apes, the strongman, little Ivan, the silent tiger tamer, the other aerialistes – all leading up to the culmination of an uforgettably eventful final performance before the circus moves on. This was the part of the book I really enjoyed. It was funny in places, poignant in others and only the characters all speaking the same way really marred my enjoyment. Fevver’s story took a bit of a backseat until toward the end, but I actually prefered it that way, and Walser, though still pretty bland, started to come into his own a bit as he witnessed and interacted with the unusual life and inhabitants of the circus.
Part three, Siberia, is where it all started to unravel for me though. In fact, had I not been on a train, my copy of the book would probably have hit a wall when the narration suddenly shifted into first-person, and then hit the wall again when it shifted back. Almost all the chapters dealing with Fevvers in this third section now flow back and forth between an omniscient third person and Fevver’s point of view with very little rhyme or reason and no clues as to when the changes are going to happen. One moment you’re reading third person description and then BAM! Next sentence you’re suddenly in Fevver’s head going ‘wait, what…that doesn’t make sense, how did I get here?’. The dull love story also comes more to the forefront in this section and, to be honest, I don’t care enough about either character to really give a shit about it.
3.5 stars. I wanted to like it more. It’s a very clever book with lots of great ideas and feminist and social themes running through it – all of which are more interesting than the basic framework of the story. There’s a lot of stuff to pick out and enjoy and yes, it is beautifully written – but almost tortuously so. For every descriptive gem there’s a nice idea somewhere else belaboured to the point of irritation and the characters, even Fevver’s who is ‘larger than life’, don’t have enough of an independent voice for me to particularly care about them or their fate. In the end, much as I wanted to get into the story for its own sake, I was fighting against the way it was written to do so.
I still love Angela Carter’s writing, and I still love The Bloody Chamber, and I am glad I read this. But ultimately I think her style is much better suited to short stories than novels.