Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

ACW badge 4 Today is the last day of Angela Carter Week, an event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat. Because of all the different time zones of all the participants and because, if we want to be accurate, this event ends at midnight on Sunday the 15th, the last post will be up tomorrow and will include the links to the reviews of all book bloggers who joined us in reading the work of this unique author.

I managed to finish Nights at the Circus today, but in all fairness, it wasn’t easy. What began as an intriguing journey into the fantastical world of Carter’s work with the stories in The Bloody Chamber, proved to be a different thing entirely with this novel.

Nights at the Circus The story begins with an interview. Sophie Fevvers (which is just another name for feathers) is a miracle of nature. She works in a circus as an aerialiste, displaying her talents with the flying trapeze and dazzling the world with her wings. Part woman, part bird, she claims to have been hatched and not birthed, and Jack Walser, a young American journalist sets out to find out the truth behind this incredible story.

“Is she fact or is she fiction?” is the aerialiste’s favorite slogan and together with her trusted chaperone/friend/foster mother, she spins a story that literally makes Walser dizzy. From being found by Lizzie on the doorsteps of a London whorehouse to a childhood spent playing Cupid for the customers, to working in a house with other girls such as Sleeping Beauty and the Wonder, through kidnaps and a train wreck, this story is a roller-coaster filled with so much symbolism it made my head spin. Fairy tale characters abound, there’s also a pig who can spell, tigers who can dance, monkeys who take matters into their own hands, a shaman, a clown who loses his mind during a show and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Carter crams every page with philosophy, symbols, and references to various literary works or authors including Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dante. No paragraph is left free, no sentence untouched, and the story spins in all directions, here telling the tale of a character, here we find out about another, all linked and tied together to the mysterious bird-woman or the journalist who follows her across countries in the name of curiosity and later, in the name of love.

Almost nothing is what it seems here – Fevvers herself most of all. She is a “giantess” with a “big bosom”, blonde hair and blue eyes. She farts and spits and blows her nose with her fingers, drinks copious amounts of alcohol with the finesse of a drunken sailor, yet her vocabulary is only matched by her lust for money and that is great, indeed. Showered with gifts by admirers, invited to fancy diners, she is the wonder everybody admires, desires and obsesses over, but her calculated avarice and cunning saves her from more than one sticky situation.

I’m not sure if I liked this book. I certainly admire and appreciate the writing but certain passages I could have done without. The first part of the book – in which Fevvers goes down memory lane – was more interesting, and as for characters, I didn’t like any of them in particular. Reading this book was an odd sensation, and I’m beginning to think Carter works best for me in smaller chunks. Her prose is rich and abundant, a cornucopia of words spilling from the pages; her views on marriage, the freedom of women and the nuisance of men, quite obvious – sexuality, abuse of women, madness, fantastic elements, all are present or hinted at one way or the other.
While I did enjoy the nuances and musings, a few sprinkled here and there are fine, but a deluge is not, and at the end of the day I want to enjoy a good story without digging my way from under the symbolism. I am glad I read her work, even if it hasn’t made a fan out of me – not yet anyway (though I still think her short stories are great and would recommend them), I’m not sure if I would try and read any of her other books any time soon.

My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in June, 2014

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10 Responses to Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

  1. Vishy says:

    Brilliant review, Delia! Your comments – “Her prose is rich and abundant, a cornucopia of words spilling from the pages” and “While I did enjoy the nuances and musings, a few sprinkled here and there are fine, but a deluge is not” made me smile 🙂 I am sorry to know that you didn’t like this book as much as you had hoped too, but glad to know that you persevered through it. From your description, this book does look very complex and I have a feeling that her later works are more complex than her earlier ones. It is interesting that Carter makes references to Hemingway in the book. I wonder what they are.

    Thanks a lot for hosting Angela Carter week with Caroline, Delia. I enjoyed participating in it and reading my first Carter novel.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      I wish I liked it better, too. It’s interesting, but after some point all that philosophizing combined with fairy tale elements started to crowd the story a little. I think I need a long break from her books but perhaps I’ll read another one in a year or two.

      As for that reference to Hemingway, the expression “a movable feast” appeared a few times. Now I don’t know if she intended that as a nod to Hemingway but ever since I’ve read “A Moveable Feast”, every time I see it I think of his book.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the event, it looks like we had quite a group of participants.

  2. Caroline says:

    I’m sorry this didn’t work so well for you but I agree, sometimes we want more air.
    I happen to LOVE Hemingway and think his style is unsurpassed. He ceratinyl is at the other end of the spectrum. I know how feminists generally feel about him and his books, so I wonder if she liked him.
    I love the recurring elements in Angela Carter’s prose because they similar to things I’m fascinated with.

  3. Delia says:

    Hi Caroline,
    Who knows, perhaps after a longer break I’ll finally find that Carter novel that would change my opinion. 🙂
    It didn’t seem as if she didn’t like Hemingway so maybe she did. Would that be a surprise?

    I loved all the fairy tale references but I feel like it was just too much. I wonder if any of her books are free of these elements. Now that’s a novel I’d like to read.

  4. Brona says:

    Thanks so much for co-hosting this event – it has been wonderful.

    Sorry to hear you didn’t completely enjoy this book. I’ve only read her short stories, so I have no comparison…except that folk don’t rave about her novels as much as they do about her short stories.
    Although it sounds like all her familiar themes are in this book 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Thank you for participating, Brona. I hope you’ll join us again for other reading events.

      It was an odd experience, and the first half was better. I like her short stories but there are only so many times I can read about Snow White or Red Riding Hood before wanting something else.

  5. Sounds like a very different and interesting book. I like the fact that the writing style is so crammed with references and musings. While I am glad all fiction is not written this way I find these unconventional approaches really fun as they are different and add to the diversity of the reading experience.

    Of course as you allude to, such experimental styles do not always work and can be a bit hard to take.

    • Delia says:

      It is good to read a book like this once in a while, it makes for a change of pace and an interesting experience. I think you would have liked it, I’m always intrigued by your detailed blog posts – if there is someone who would get a kick out of reading this book and analyzing it afterwards, it certainly would be you.

  6. Mel u says:

    Thanks for host this event along with Caroline. It was my first serious contact with Angela Carter. I like her tales a lot, they played into my own fantasies. I read some quotes from Carter, she says a lot of negative things about marriage and men, not saying she is wrong. I will first read all her short stories then move on to novels. I hope this event will repeat next year.

    • Delia says:

      Thank you for participating, Mel. I’m very happy this has been such a great experience for you. I’ve noticed her negativism towards men and marriage in general, it makes me wonder why she got married (twice!) after all.
      I hope you enjoy her short stories and novels. Not sure if we’ll repeat the event next year but we’ll make it known if we do.

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