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Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus (1984)

by Angela Carter

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,131323,070 (3.96)1 / 274
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English (31)  German (1)  All (32)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Oh dear. Where to start? Angela Carter spins a complicated tale of magic, myth, history, and feminism while relating the often comic, sometimes sordid, ultimately creepy story of Fevvers. I won’t rehash the plot here because the review would stretch to several pages.

I think this book is either too short or too long, depending on what the reader wants. The first section, in which Fevvers tells the fantastic story of her life as half woman half swan, is an amazing example of characterization. One falls completely under her spell and becomes totally absorbed in the book. The section is a completely successful short story, with just enough magical mystery and plenty of humor to maintain the illusion.

Part two, about the circus in which Fevvers is the star attraction—who doesn’t want to see a woman literally fly?— is somewhat less successful. Too many characters are added, and it becomes difficult to follow the myriad plot threads. It’s not tedious, precisely, but it requires your mental running shoes just to keep up. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of humor to provide some relief, and an interesting exploration of the appeal, or not, of clowns. We also get a mind-boggling scene with Fevvers and a Russian archduke that’s startlingly menacing.

Finally we follow the circus troupe to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. And here’s where, for me, the book started to fall apart a bit. Fevvers and her foster mother, Liz, somehow transform from bordello dwellers speaking in breezy Cockney into brilliant social analysts who converse like philosophers. This is jarring, at best. The ending was, I thought, weak, leaving the future highly in doubt. But even this section has some brilliant, if crazy, writing. Carter is so compelling, so realistic in her craziness, that I was driven to research some of what she describes. I was astonished to find that even the most bizarre events are based in reality.

So. There’s a lot of horror here, a lot of ugliness, but also redemption and hope. Not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, this is an intriguing and very adult book. ( )
1 vote bohemima | Jan 22, 2018 |
Angela Carter introduces to a colourful, late nineteenth century world that is amazing, implausible and filled with stories.

Sophie Fevvers (generally called just Fevvers) is a larger than life Cockney aerialiste, the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, her fame has spread across the world. For Fevvers is part woman, – an impressively bosomed blonde, standing over six-foot-high – and part swan with an impressive wing span. It is 1899, and in her dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall theatre in London, Fevvers entertains Jack Walser; an American journalist, who has arrived in London to interview Fevvers. Is Fevvers really part woman, part swan, or is she a fake? Jack is determined to discover the truth about who Fevvers is.

“At close quarters, it must be said that she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they she was ‘divinely tall,’ there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the common man.”

The first part of the novel – definitely my favourite section – is Fevvers long raucous account of her life up to that point. In the midst of chaotically strewn costumes, empty champagne bottles and greasepaint Fevvers delights in holding court. Alongside Fevvers in her dressing room that night is Lizzie, a tiny, rough diamond of a little woman, a former prostitute, who has been with Fevvers since babyhood. Every now and then Lizzie cuts in with a story or two of her own, but in essence this first one hundred pages or so is Fevvers story – and alongside it we have the stories of numerous other colourful fantastic creations. These include Ma Nelson, the madam of a brothel, Madame Schreck the owner of a freak show, Toussint her servant born without a mouth and the various inhabitants of these establishments that include a sleeping beauty.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”

Fevvers shows him (and us) her incredible wings – recounts the story of their emergence and how she learned how to use them, it is a story of extraordinary aerodynamics touched with just a little magic. Big Ben strikes, and time seems to stand still, as Jack is drawn deeper into the stories of Fevvers – who never shies away from discussing, quite frankly, the seedier side of life. Belching, farting and directing Jack to just use the chamber pot behind the screen in her room, she is utterly irrepressible – and Jack is completely floored by her.

As the long night of revelations and fabulous stories end, Jack follows Fevvers and Lizzie out into the London streets, and as Jack walks back to his lodgings he knows he can’t just leave it there. So, Jack arranges to run away with the Circus and follows Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of Colonel Kearney’s fantastic troupe to St. Petersburg – and then, on to Siberia.

Now, we get to meet the rest of the circus, and what a fantastic bunch they are! There is sibyl – Colonel Kearney’s pet pig, intelligent clairvoyant, the Colonel often asks her for advice. A troupe of chimpanzees headed up by The Professor – who make a bid for freedom. Tiger tamer, Princess of Abyssinia, the strong man, an abusive monkey trainer – whose cowed wife Mignon frees herself from him, transformed in time into a beautiful singer and who falls in love with the Princess. Buffo, the leader of the clowns – who Jack joins in his bid to follow Fevvers wherever she may go. From St Petersburg the Circus travels toward Japan via Siberia, where in the frozen, snowy wastes the Colonel’s circus encounter adventure, abductors, female murderers and Russian fur traders.

It is testament to Angela Carter’s skill as a storyteller that all these characters work so well. Not everything is quite as it seems, neither us nor Jack is ever really sure what is real and what mere illusion. Fevvers, real or fake – is an extraordinary lovable survivor – and the reader just wills her to be happy.

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

I read Nights at the Circus quite quickly speeding through it in three or four days, it is hard to put down, though for me the middle section sagged a bit – and I longed to be back in Fevvers’ dressing room. Though the story picks up pace again as we find ourselves in Siberia. Nights at the Circus might not work so well had it been written by a lesser writer, but in Angela Carter’s hands it is an exuberant, romp of memorable characters and impossible things.
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 11, 2017 |
[Nights at the Circus] by Angela Carter 2.5

Okay. I am not going to lie. I did not like this book. And I feel bad giving it a 2.5, but 3.0 on my newly revised rating means "good" and this wasn't. Interestingly enough, this book scores well on LT, but if you read the reviews, there are a fair number of negative ones.

I powered through to the end because I am reading it with CammyKitty/Jenny and because I never got around to it when I was hosting the David Bowie thread with IreadthereforIam/Megan last year. But I am sorry I spent my time on it.

The book is about the star attraction of the circus, an aerialist who is half woman and half swan, Sophie Fevvers. Other major characters include her foster mother Lizzie, who may be a witch, and a newspaper reporter, Jack Walser, who wants to find out whether Fevvers is a scam artist. The romance didn't work for me, the magic fell flat and the characters never drew me in. The writing is wonderful and I did enjoy Fevvers early childhood growing up in a bordello, but the stories didn't connect later on. Ah well, I finished it and I can check it off my list. ( )
  Berly | Feb 20, 2017 |
I read this for my Halloween book. It understood it to creep and dark - and considering it about the Circus (which creep me out) - I thought it should be sufficient for a Halloween. I was disappointed. Sort of a bent fairy tale, it contained more magic realism, strange characters, and shocker-value narrative than creepy and dark. I didn't enjoy it. I agree the Fevvers and Walser are complex characters, well-written, and intriguing. But the secondary characters seem built only to shock the reader. They are a mish-mash of cliches and oddities, all the fantastic to be believable. And the magic - a bit is fine, but half the time, I had no idea what happened. It seemed often the magic was used to connect bits in the story instead of using plot. I didn't like that. And in the end, the biggest "hook" of the story - whether Fevvers actually has wings or not - is never answered. It fits with the the book - meaning the reader never really knows what is real and what is not - sort of like a Circus, I guess - but it wasn't my sort of story. I prefer rational thought. ( )
  empress8411 | Feb 6, 2017 |
This is a lewd, colourful, over the top book. The increasingly peculiar adventures of Fevvers and other members of the circus are described in all their glory and squalor. I think the writing is a little uneven, some bits seem to flow better than others, but it's bursting with ideas and great fun to read. ( )
1 vote AlisonSakai | Aug 12, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carter, Angelaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Castagnone, Maria GiuliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Lor' love you, sir!' Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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American journalist Jack Walser travels with an enchanted circus that feature literate chimpanzees, tragic clowns, idealist brigands, a structuralist Siberian shaman, and a six-foot, two-inch blond aerialist who is part swan and part woman.

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