Wednesday 26 September 2012

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

It's 1899 and all of Europe is agape at the arrival of the new century. The world crackles with possibilities and people dance to the irresistible rhythms of money, sex, love and freedom. Swinging above them all is a showbiz sensation: a fierce, vulgar, pant-droppingly sexy trapeze artist called Fevvers.
Goodreads description

Wow! This book doesn't so much begin as launches - "Lor' love you, sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. What follows is a rollicking good read, full of invention, humour, earthiness and magic realism. This is a circus world in which chimps take over the management of their act, tigers waltz, a pig acts as management consultant to the circus owner spelling out advice in alphabet cards, clocks repeatedly strike midnight and of course a buxom Cockney aerialist hatched from an egg and now flies on dyed purple wings. Or do they? As Fevvers wonders at one point  Am I fact or am I fiction?

The book opens in a theatre dressing room strewn with underwear, discarded costumes and empty bottles where Fevvers assisted by Lizzie, her assistant and adoptive mother, tells a cynical reporter by the name of Walser the story of her youth and life to that point. Throughout the interview Fevvers constantly uses slight of hand and word to bemuse the young reporter, combining her physical presence and some apparently verifiable references to put him off the scent. We, the readers, watch as the game is played out and Walser is reeled in. This section sets up the rest of the book. Like a magician's dupe Walser is encouraged to focus on the wrong things, like the clock constantly striking twelve, while not focusing on the major (whether Fevvers really has wings). The clock episode is mirrored later in the book in which time passes at different speeds for the two protagonists. Indeed we readers sometimes feel like Walser in the dressing room and we certainly do at the end.

So is the magic just artifice - as in Life of Pi? No, this is more than a story told to befuddle. Everything is larger than life, in Fevvers' case quite literally. As I indicated above there are plenty of magic realism elements in the story, which we accept without question, perhaps because we are watching to see if Fevvers can really fly. The questions we are left with rather than diminishing our capacity to imagine increase it. The picture Angela Carter is painting is bigger than the canvas and we are left to think outside the frame. 

An important element in this book is its feminism. In addition to the wonderful Fevvers, an earthy goddess albeit one who flies, there is the ex-whore Lizzie who is politically active and scathing about men and authority and too can perform magic: For the things my foster mother can pull off when she sets her mind to it, you'd not believe! Shrinkings and swellings and clocks running ahead or behind you like frisky dogs. Then there are a series of women in Fevvers' life who have been the sexual and abused objects of mens cruelty and who find strength and love in other women. Men have always seen woman's body as at once real and magical. Fevver's body is a larger than life example of that, but it is one which Fevvers denies the men who crave to control and own it. For women Fevvers' wings are an assertion of a woman's right to soar. My body was the abode of countless freedom. It is often said of magic realism that it is a means of the oppressed to express themselves. If women's experience of reality is a denial of access to power then it becomes necessary to create an alternative reality. It is therefore appropriate if magic realism is used to explore the magical strength of women. This is something that interests me as a writer. I too have chosen to use magic realism to explore the potential of women in my trilogy about the healer Judith. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very stimulating review--I'm looking forward to reading this, but also trepidant that I'll have nothing new to add!