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Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter


Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
First published in: 1984
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it here: Nights at the Circus

Picaresque, whimsical, sassy, irreverent, and magical are a few words that come to mind as I try and describe this novel. Nights at the Circus was a magical ride that centers on the life and escapades of circus performer Sophie Fevvers. Sophie is an famous aerialist who claims she was hatched from an egg and abandoned by her parents, raised in a brothel, and sprouted fully fledged wings.

The novel is broken into three parts. Part one is set in London in 1899. Walser, a young journalist who is skeptical about the powers and reality of Sophie, decides to interview her for a newspaper entitled “Great Humbugs of the World” in an attempt to prove her to be a fraud. Yet, after meeting her he becomes enchanted with her and the circus. In part two, we find Walser working as a clown in the circus in order to become closer to Sophie. This section takes us deep into the heart of the circus and centers on an array of colorful characters and scenarios. The final section takes place in Siberia. The circus troupe is headed across Siberia to Tokyo but the train derails and a number of events ensue (I will leave it at that rather than provide spoilers). The novel is filled with magical moments, irreverence, and humor.  Carter leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Sophie is really magical or just an excellent con-woman.

Nights at the Circus has a strong feminist message and is a blend of genres with magical realism being central. The heroine is strong and not the sort to require male rescuing. In fact, she is often the one who does the rescuing. She’s crude but in an amusing way and she is constantly defying stereotypes.

Why oh why did I discover Angela Carter so late in the game?  I knew very little about Angela Carter before reading this book and when researching her found out that she had taught at Brown University (I have personal ties to the school) for several years. She died from cancer at the age of 52 and was named one of the “50 Greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times. Carter was known for her whimsical and feminist writings.

I really enjoyed this book yet I am struggling to adequately describe or review the book. It’s smart and funny and wonderfully quirky. I will be adding Carter as an author whose works I want to explore in depth. You’ll enjoy this book if you like magical realism with a feminist twist.

Favorite quotes:

As we say in our country: ‘tomorrow never comes’, which is why you’re promised jam tomorrow. We live, always in the here and now, the present. To pin your hopes upon the future is to consign those hopes to a hypothesis, which is to say, a nothingness.

“Perhaps…I could not be content with mere contentment!”

“We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

He would have called himself a ‘man of action’ He subjected his life to a series of cataclysmic shocks because he loved to hear his bones rattle. That’s how he knew he was alive.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: Nights at the Circus

Have you read this book? What did you think? Have you read others by Angela Carter? What do you think of her works?