The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people

The Night CircusThe Night Circus
by Uršuľa Kovalyk
translated from Slovakian by Julia and Peter Sherwood

This is my Slovakia book for the EU Reading Challenge. It is a short story collection that was sent to me by the publisher after a contact heard about my challenge. I am so grateful to both contact and publisher for helping me with my challenge and for introducing me to a fantastic author I would otherwise not have heard of.

The stories are on the short side – mostly four or five pages – and all have female protagonists, often unnamed. While they have real-world settings, the tone is always slightly weird or off kilter. For instance, in the title story, Eleanora stumbles across a circus tent, and on entry finds herself the star of a very weird show with no audience. It’s a dark exploration of pain, psychology and blame, and it’s completely absorbing.

“Eleanora is irritated by the noise people make as they walk down the street. The sound coming from beneath their shoes is chaotic, restless. It strikes her ears with a vengeance and makes her feel anxious. At times like these Eleanora can’t hear herself. The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people. It makes her feel like she doesn’t exist. Like she’s just a ghost. A fiction. She’s losing her outlines.”

Then again, some of the stories go beyond reality altogether. In “Rainy day Joe”, the narrator finds a tiny man and takes him home. She domesticates him and they begin a sexual relationship. Everything is perfect until a visitor to their home breaks the spell. It’s both creepy and sweet. In possibly my favourite story “The dog in the fridge”, the narrator opens her fridge to find a dog and realises she must go on a quest to rescue it.

Some of the stories could be accused of having nothing happen in them, they are all about the atmosphere. And the characters. The characters are fascinating, complex, real. The stories also have a dark sense of humour. In “Three women” an old woman lies dying while her three daughters debate their mother’s sex life. In fact, sex comes up often – not explicitly, but honestly and openly.

“ ‘Do you think she’s ever had an orgasm?’ the woman with glasses asked, looking up. ‘I doubt it,’ the youngest said…They sat down by her bedside, concerned that she might never has experienced an orgasm. They watched her face…‘Do you think she’s ever masturbated?’ the youngest kept nagging. ‘Don’t be silly, when would she have done that?’…The dusk in the room thickened and expanded, the air vibrated, charged with electricity.”

The writing is excellent and I loved every minute of the weirdness. I’d really love to read more of Kovalyk’s work.

An expanded version of the Slovak collection Travesty sou, published 2004 by Aspekt.
This translation published 2019 by Parthian.

Source: a copy was kindly sent to me by the publisher.

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