James Chew reviews Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Curiously and entirely coincidentally I found myself in the middle of reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus when it was announced that Carter’s penultimate novel had won the Best of the James Tait Black Award. Shortlisted to 6 books from every winner over the last 93 years, the Edinburgh University students judging the award declared that Nights at the Circus was the best ever recipient of the prestigious literary award.
It came as something of a surprise to me. Don’t get me wrong, Carter is clearly a virtuous performer of magic-realist literary fiction and she could write circles around most of her contemporaries; in fact, I can’t think of many living authors who can match her. And yet, Nights at the Circus is such a curious beast. A pantomime horse with the front of a peacock and the arse of a hippo.
In brief, the story begins when a strangely blank journalist, Jack Walser finds himself in the dressing room of the famed aerialist, Sophie Fevvers, renowned for her apparently genuine white wings. Billed as a half-woman, half-swan Sophie is graceful and vulgar in equal measure, and her strange body and its stranger tale soon captivate the journalist. The narrative is split into three parts – tied to the three primary settings of the novel: London, St Petersberg, and Siberia. To my mind, by far the most effective section is London: a combination of vulgarity, vaudeville, and Gothic melodrama. Its success is both in the memorability of its vignettes, but also that it is the only section told entirely through Sophie’s voice, a throaty, gauche, yet oddly genuine vehicle for the narrative, punctuated with occasional sentimentality.
The narrative becomes more disjointed as Walser decides to join the circus on its Grand World Tour, engineered by the magnificently dreadful Colonel Kearney, the circus’ master. There are some genuinely chilling sequences – anything involving Boffo the Clown edges towards the nightmarish, and the whole piece takes on the tenor of a fever dream. But one can never escape the impression that Fevver’s tale was more effective in her own voice; in Walser’s narration she becomes something of an enigma. And without the twin spurs of Fevver’s wings or her delightfully mercenary ambitions to drive the plot, things begin to meander.
After a truly 1970s piece of literary showmanship in which Fevvers escapes from a predicament via a model train which transforms into the actual circus train in the following paragraph, the novel careens through Siberia encompassing identity, isolation, a somewhat dated examination of ‘primitive’ culture in the face of modernity, and anticipation of the coming century. There are some magnificent set-pieces, most notably an extended visit to a women’s prison in the heart of the wilds which would work equally well as a short-story, but it never quite coheres. I could never escape the impression that the novel’s heart had been left in London, and as the oddities increase, the characters become increasingly vehicles for the novel’s themes, rather than the magnificent, organic creations that dominated the early stages.
There’s a distance to events in the latter sections, with set-pieces seemingly illustrating themes and preoccupations Carter wished to explore, rather than organic pieces of the narrative. A friend remarked that the whole novel appears to be a grand tour of 1970s academic concerns and debates, which becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses. The ‘tribalism’ sections in Siberia in particular seem more illustrative of various academic framings of a debate, than a naturalistic depiction of Siberian cultures.
Still, it’s an intriguing and beautifully written novel. And having not read most of the other winners of the James Tait Black Award, I can’t conclude that it isn’t perhaps the best of them. But I can’t help but feel Carter was capable of better, richer, and more coherent work.