Angela Carter is one of those writers who have been on the periphery of my personal reading radar for a while. Feminist friends revere her work. She's one of the big literary names who deal in fairy tales. And she's been massively influential.
Nights at the Circus is a novel about Fevvers - a cockney pronunciation of Feathers. She's a miraculous woman who has wings and can fly, and she's found a career as an acrobat. The book is divided into three parts. In part one, she tells her story to an American journalist, backstage in a London theatre, over the course of a night. The journalist wants nothing more than to prove her fake and burst the bubble of her fame. In part two, she starts on a world tour with a circus, and the journalist, seduced by the mystical attraction of circus life, follows along, signing up as clown and living incognito in the circus. Part three, ... well, I'm not going to spoil the story.
The novel is written in quite dense prose. It is not a quick read, and requires some concentration. The story moves in unexpected ways, and every aspect of the novel becomes more and more surreal and dream-like as it progresses. Starting with a relatively straightforward biographical narrative, the growing sense of unease is infused into the story gently: something odd is happening with the passage of time. There are unspoken things, sudden changes in the flow of conversation, meaningful glances get exchanged.
In part two, the surreal / fantastical elements become more prevalent. Animals are different. Clowns have their own mythos. Some magic appears to occur (beyond a winged, flying woman). And part three - well, all bets are off in part three, and we're deep into surreal, dream like, trance like crazy. Narrative voices change from first person to third person from one paragraph to the next (up to this point, all was in third person), among other twisted writing methods. Part three feels like a bit of an acid trip in the 1960s, in some ways. But the story still gets (largely) rounded off.
Underlying the novel are a rather large number of ideas, half-thoughts and notions about gender, women, men and feminism. Sometimes they are voiced by the author, in a carefully chosen phrase in descriptive text. At other times, characters openly discuss these themes (a particularly memorably dialogue is an argument about relationships where a maternal figure tries to convince Fevvers that falling in love might be more harmful to her self than prostitution). Sometimes, there are plot developments that are symbolic or metaphorical. Women, on the whole, fare best when they connect and interact with other women: even a whore house is utopian and idyllic, with no conflict between the whores, just as long as the men are not around. But as soon as men are involved, there is violence. Wife beaters, wife murderers, sinister religious oppressors, rapists... even our male protagonist at some point casually considers raping a vulnerable, almost unconscious woman who finds herself temporarily in his care, although it never goes beyond a hateful throwaway thought. Women without men (or children) flourish in this novel. Men (and children) bring suffering and complete loss of self.
No wonder Angela Carter's novels are dear to the heart of any English students tasked with writing essays about feminist literary theories.
Densely written and surreal, at times experimental - this novel is not my usual fare at all. It has some beautiful passages and chapters and ideas. Fevvers is a memorable character, cheerfully low brow, sweaty, smelly and untidy, described in vivid detail and imprinting herself in my memory.
Yet as a story, the novel is not entirely satisfying. There are long passages where I was bored as a reader. Some plot devices seem too strange to have meaning or reason. Some storylines remain unresolved. In short, by the time I finished reading, I felt only half satisfied with it.