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Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus

Anyone who thinks magic realism is a Latin American thing should read this book. Here is a strange story about circus people told in realistic fashion with various strange and fantastic events occurring. The story is told, more or less, from the point of view of Fevvers (the Cockney pronunciation of feathers, so called because, though she is in all other respects human, she has wings). Fevvers was born and brought up in a brothel, where she was a cherub. When the madam dies intestate and her sanctimonious brother takes over, the inhabitants of the brothel have to leave and find other employment. Fevvers starts with a museum of women monsters, before the owner of that museum sells her to a very rich man who wants some sport with the feathered woman. Escaping from his clutches, she joins Colonel Kearney’s circus and it is there that Jack Walser, an American journalist finds her and falls in love with her. Walser is so smitten that, when the circus goes off to St Petersburg, he joins the circus to be with her. After various adventures in St Petersburg, they go off to Siberia where their train is sabotaged and where they have more adventures in the snowy wastes, not least of which is that Walser becomes a shaman’s assistant. But all is well that ends well.

It is not only Fevvers where Carter’s asks us to suspend disbelief. The apes in the circus, particularly the Professor, are smarter than their manager while Colonel Kearney’s main adviser is Sybil a sow. Carter gives us what might be called, in some respects, a more light-hearted version of Freaks, where she mocks the non-circus world through the circus people. The role and image of women, our inability to suspend disbelief (Fevvers has to pretend to be a fake pretending to be real, otherwise no-one would accept her), what is real and what is not and who is smart and who is not are all themes Carter playfully introduces. But enjoy this novel not for what it says but for the splendid, tongue-in-cheek scenes and unusual characters. Suspend your disbelief with Fevvers and Mignon, Sybil and the Colonel, Walser and his shaman and all the characters of the world as a circus.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Chatto & Windus