Is Sophie Fevvers part swan, or entirely fake? That is the only question on the untouched lips of Jack Walser; but it is a question that the young journalist is dissatisfied to leave unanswered as he embarks upon a viciously humiliating quest across Europe to discover the truth behind Fevver’s dizzyingly hazy identity. She is an aerialiste extraordinaire, a sword-wielding guardian of prostitutes and is the undisputable star of Colonel Kearney’s Circus, but dazzled by his love for her, Walser must join the circus and its magical mystery tour across fin de siècle London, St Petersburg and Siberia to discover the truth that lies deeply veiled within the abyss of Fevver’s past. Encountering along the way a band of female convict’s hell bent on a female commune, a posse of melancholically depressed clowns and an ancient tribe of shamans, Nights at the Circus is a magnificent tale of magical realism that Angela Carter weaves around wicked comedy and vivacious melancholy.
Fevver’s greatest predicament is her continual victimisation; she is obsessively gawped at, turned into a freakish sideshow and is continually preyed upon by people merely seeking to turn her into a commodity and a symbol. Walser’s greatest predicament is his blind attempt to mythologise Fevver’s into the commodity that she and her charismatic nature are too large for, in order to serve the desperate masculine needs that drive him, fanatically, to pursue the scoop of a lifetime. As the story unfolds it becomes ever more baffling and bizarre. As the circus travel further from civilisation into the wilderness of Europe, the narrative also wanders further from reality and further from the convention that grounded post-turn-of-the-century life in stability. With Nights at the Circus expectation and skepticism must be set aside and you must allow yourself the freedom to willingly follow Angela Carter down the vivid paths of her imagination as she rewrites the new century with such vivacity that the improbable becomes indisputable reality.
Carter allows the deeply fantastic and the impossible to become truth in Nights at the Circus and Fevver’s becomes a realist symbol that is truly worth celebrating – she introduces a liberated century where ‘all women have wings’. The novel certainly has its share of villains and victims, heroes and tyrants, but the narrative is ultimately a moving account of liberation that celebrates the casting off of myth and ‘mind forg’d manacles’ that has left both men and women trapped within their own bodies with only their inner being for company for centuries. Carter laments the discovery of voice, empathy and conscience in this sparkling novel that holds onto tremendous optimism from the opening pages and never ceases to let go of that optimism until it manifests itself into a transformed world for both men and women, clowns and lion tamers, convicts and escapees.