Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus

This book is split into three sections, London, Petersburg, and Siberia. The first part, London, is fantastic and without doubt one of the best pieces of writing I have read from Carter (and she has a consistently high standard). It concerns the biography of Fevvers, a statuesque flying trapeze artiste with wings, hatched from an egg and raised in a Victorian whorehouse, and who, with the help of her adoptive mother Lizzie, becomes a famous and very wealthy vaudeville artiste. This first third of the novel ends with the most fantastic set-up that you would expect from a 10 page prelude, not the first 33% of the book.

Sadly, the rest of the book does not quite keep up this standard, it falls into the pattern that Carter started to use with Heroes and Villains, and used through Desire Machines and New Eve, that of a twisted version of Gullivers Travels crossed with The Fairie Queene and Pilgrims Progress. Whilst this clearly has the effect of allegorising a journey into the C20th from the C19th, it also had the effect of dampening my enthusiasm for the tale. The Petersburg section of the book, dealing with the events at the Circus is still entertaining, full of quirky characters and interesting tales (a troop of studious, self educated monkeys efecting their emancipation from a drunken and illiterate master being perhaps the most entertaining and endearing), if a little episodic in nature. The Siberia section, however, in which the Circus is disbanded and marooned in the wilderness following a train crash, again whilst replete with meaning and symbolism, takes whatever was enjoyable about the earlier parts of the book and mercilessly throws them out to freeze in the Russian winter.

By this point, I should know better than to trust Carter to keep up a tour de force of enjoyable narrative, but somehow you always hope that this time will be different, that the writing will continue in the magical, moonstruck vein that seems to glimmer on the page, but still that moment comes when Carter takes what you know and are comfortable with, jerks it roughly away from you, and throws you into a narrative where you must think and analyse, must challenge your own desires, and not just in regards to what you want from the narrative. Both her best novel, and because of this, also her most frustrating.


~ by Snake Oil on June 13, 2011.

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