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.
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