The fun of the fair

Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter

This is one of those modern classics that keeps popping up in discussions on Radio 4, with nothing but praise directed its way, so I thought it was about time I gave it a go.

It is a beautiful, crazy book. Right from the start, Carter keeps us guessing: is anyone telling the truth? Is this the part fantasy/fairy tale that it seems to be or is it a story about some rather clever, even fantastic, people in “real” life?

The story switches between three narrators, sometimes third person, sometimes first, but always appearing to be one of their perspectives. First there’s Jack Walser, an American investigative journalist who, at the start of the novel, is in London to interview a woman who he thinks must be pulling some kind of trick on the British public. That woman is our second narrator, Sophie Fevvers, a six foot plus blonde with wings – yes, wings – who takes advantage of this strange growth by performing as a trapeze artist. She gladly tells Walser her story, or a version of it, with help from her rather less welcoming foster mother Lizzie, who seems to have tricks up her sleeve, has a way with words that belies her coarse cockney accent and is our third narrator/perspective.

Walser quickly falls for Fevvers, as she prefers to be known, to the extent that he signs himself up to join the circus that she is about to go on tour with; and so begins a cacophony of adventure and misadventure.

The story is set in 1899 so the circus is that old-fashioned kind that combined freak show, performing animals, and heavy superstition and tradition. This sometimes got hard to stomach. I have in my time campaigned for circuses to be animal-free and, frankly, this novel offers strong evidence in that campaign’s favour. However, it’s all part of the surreal menagerie that now includes Fevvers – part woman, part swan. And the chimps are completely brilliant.

Carter toys with her readers throughout, mixing reality with lore and perception so that it is never clear what the characters believe to be true and what actually is true:

“[They] did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity towards the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.”

For all its rollicking, good humoured, wonderfully written storytelling, it did take me a while to get through this book. Mostly I think that was the language. This isn’t simple, accessible language. This is complex, crafted, allusion-heavy prose, with borrowings from the folklore and mythology of several European countries. I thought it was magnificent, but there was no rushing through it.

I also – and I hate to admit that this made a difference – took a while to warm to any of the main characters. Fevvers and Lizzie deliberately keep themselves at a distance, though they can talk for hours on end (and do so), so you’re always aware that they’re holding something back, even without the big mystery of Fevvers’ wings. And Walser starts out as a pure journalist, not letting his own character or history get anywhere near the story that he is unravelling, so it is a long time before his personality begins to show through.

In all, this is a magical, funny, adventure-filled read encompassing all sorts of colourful outsiders – prostitutes, freaks, clowns, murderers and more besides. The story travels from London to Siberia and evocatively captures each location as well as the daily lives of its huge cast of characters. Carter created something extraordinary here and I will definitely have to read more of her work.

First published 1984.
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.