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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zany, imaginative romp across London and Russia that made me run away with the circus!
I saw "Nights at the Circus" on sale at our college bookstore and was intrigued enough to check it out. As someone who grew up on Todd Browning's 1932 circus horror classic "Freaks," the idea of a novel centered around the foreign-yet-familiar animal trainers, sideshow attractions, and gritty wonders of London at the turn of the 20th century drew me in.

Sophie,...
Published on November 22, 2005 by Bundtlust

versus
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tiring Prose...
Although the whole idea of depicting a world in which the unlikely does find a place in existence -very similar to what is known as "Realismo Mágico", Carter's prose is at times nothing but tiring. At times it seems she painstakingly intends to have the reader notice all the relations of intertextuality that she knits. The use of myth does show how profound the...
Published 14 months ago by Alexei V. Lopez Enriquez


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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zany, imaginative romp across London and Russia that made me run away with the circus!, November 22, 2005
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
I saw "Nights at the Circus" on sale at our college bookstore and was intrigued enough to check it out. As someone who grew up on Todd Browning's 1932 circus horror classic "Freaks," the idea of a novel centered around the foreign-yet-familiar animal trainers, sideshow attractions, and gritty wonders of London at the turn of the 20th century drew me in.

Sophie, or "Fevvers," is billed as "Is she fact or is she fiction?" Tall, commanding, and winged, this half-bird Amazonian captures the interest of Jack, an American newspaper reporter who initially tries to pick apart her story of being half-bird as a sham, but soon is mesmerized by Fevver's eloquent autobiography, macabre adventures working in brothels, and outgoing personality, enough that he joins her circus as a clown and follows them to Russia.

The novel is told from various characters' perspectives, which made it confusing for me the first few pages each time the narrator changed, until I knew who was talking. The novel feels almost schizophrenic at times, rapidly switching points of view and narration at the drop of a hat. The story itself is prone to flights of fancy, including homicidal clowns, bizarre sexual escapades involving a group of Sapphic convicts in the Russian wilderness, a high-ranking politician obsessed with the occult, a freak show brothel, a lesbian relationship between an animal trainer and an abused orphan, and the sex lives of the circus crew. The plot becomes more and more improbable and more fantastic towards the end of the novel, where reality was left behind for once and all.

Overall, an imaginative, enjoyable romp filled with unexpectedly elegant turns of phrase, plenty of (erotic) action, glittering descriptions of upper class life in Russia and the gritty reality of the working poor in London and St. Petersburg, and the timeless thrill of the circus: its exotic animals, collection of ragtag performers, and the illusion of the extraordinary.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smartly Entertaining!, March 23, 2001
By 
Amenophis III (West Hollywood, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
"Is she fact or is she fiction?" This is the central question that drives journalist Jack Walser to join the circus in an investigative attempt to follow the source of his inquiry-the aerialiste Sophie Fevvers, renown for her uncanny ability to fly thanks to her seemingly magical endowment-a pair of wings. A fancifully imaginative tale, Nights at the Circus takes the reader on a journey from fin de ciecle London to St. Petersburg and finally to the wilderness of Siberia, as the tale grapples with such themes as love and female identity.
The story itself is altogether fun with a cast of charmingly eccentric characters ranging from the outlandish, entrepreneurial circus owner Colonel Kearney, whose companion is an oracular pig named 'Sybil,' to the character of Boffo the Clown, whose outwardly comical appearance belies the disturbing and tragic pagliaccio figure within. The most prominent aspect of the portrayals in the text, however, is found in the female characters who are presented as strong and triumphant, outshining their often emotionally infantile male cohorts. From the naďf turned musical ingenue Mignon to the main character Fevvers, whose wit and charm is balanced by her down to earth portrayal (a woman who eats!), the representation of females challenges the depiction of women by the male authorial voice that had dominated throughout the centuries. Smartly set at the tail end of the Victorian Era, the images of femininity in the text are made to break free from the restrictive representation of women in literature as either the goddess on the pedestal or the imbecilic whore.
Carter has an amazing ability to subtly incorporate philosophical and historical elements in her humor, ranging from existential musings on the nature of the self to a satiric portrayal of the impact of sensationalist journalism on proto-revolutionary peasants in turn of the century Russia. With the overarching structure of the circus setting, the tale is amusing and funny with its lively romp through the lives of its characters, while maintaining an awareness of the more darkly disturbing aspects of life and human behavior. Nights at the Circus is an enjoyable read that also delivers a more profound and intelligent assessment of society and culture.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tall tales, magic, feminism...all woven together masterfully, August 23, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
The main story here is about Fevvers, a boisterous, flamboyant, captivating swan-woman with a big heart, who is the star of an (in)famous circus...as seen through the eyes of the besotted young reporter Jack Walser.
The book is a treasure chest brimming with thoughtful, dark, emotionally tinged vignettes with multidimensional (to say the least) characters...the sad stories of several "freaks," Buffo the Great, the manic clown philosopher, kind murderesses, lechers, posers for the dead...I cannot do Carter's creativity justice, and I don't want to ruin the story.
It is a bit graphic and kinky; I wouldn't recommend it to all of my friends. But if you're at all interested in Carter, feminism, magical realism, fantasy, circuses, unconventional fiction, the late 19th century, a rollicking good read...pick the book up now!!!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sweet and silly surrealist tale with a central feminism., November 11, 1998
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
This story is a fable to be enjoyed on several levels. A journalist, devoted to the debunking of false claims, tackles the legend of Fevvers, the winged woman aerialist at the circus. But in the rarified air of the big top, things seem to be a little more complicated than just science can explain. Love and fascination bring him to a totally different way of thinking, and ultimately, he no longer cares how she weaves her magic spell, for he is caught up in it.
This book is a great read; poetic and evocative. It is one that will be a lasting favorite of any thinking and feeling reader.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "...is not this whole world an illusion?", February 8, 2013
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
Young journalist Jack Walser interviews the circus aerialist Sophie Fevvers, purported to be half woman-half swan, and is enchanted (almost literally) by her larger-than-life personality, her huge blue eyes and long golden hair, and her story. As she tells him of being found in a basket surrounded by the shells of the egg from which she was hatched, of being reared with kindness and love by whores, of being featured as the Angel of Death (complete with wings) in a female freak show/bordello, time stands still for Jack (literally). He convinces his boss to allow him to investigate further by joining the circus as it travels to Russia and crosses Siberia to get to Japan.

In his new undercover role as a clown, Jack enters the magic world of the circus, where a pig can point to letters to spell out business advice to the owner, where monkeys negotiate their own contracts, and where his Sophie "flies" with multi-colored wings as part of her trapeze act.

Then the circus train is blown up by outlaws somewhere in the middle of Siberia, and Jack loses his memory and is separated from Sophie and the others. Found by a native shaman, Jack is covered in eggshells from the train's kitchen and is "hatched" to become a shaman-in-training.

And he and Sophie meet again.

Nights at the Circus could be considered a book of magic realism, but it much more magical than realistic. It is more like a surrealistic dream, where anything can happen. What is real and what is an illusion? As a fakir in Kathmandu says to Jack, "...is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody."

Many people abhor stories that are not "true-to-life"--which, as they see it, could never happen. They don't want to read about magic and intelligent animals and other fairy-tale-like happenings. These people will hate this book.

Others, like me, appreciate stories that explore the boundaries of what is real and what is illusion, enjoy a dream-like narrative where all things are possible. These people will love this book.

The writing is extraordinarily good and original, sustaining a dream-like quality throughout.

The novel is also somewhat of a feminist allegory,taking place at the dawn of the 20th century. One character says to Sophie, "Oh, my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground."
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Had Me Going Until the End :-(, June 9, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
Most of the other readers here have gushed about this work. For the most part, I uphold the sentiment that this is an amazing piece of work--no pun intended. I give it four stars because most of it is genuinely impressive, but the story only holds up for the first two-thirds. Seems like I'm alone here, but I was profoundly disappointed by the last half of the third section, and ultimately that ruined the book for me. Despite the fact that it's all just one big fantasy, it got so far-fetched that I couldn't buy into it any longer. So be forewarned--it's not without flaws.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality vs. Fiction, February 7, 2013
By 
Donegal (Kentucky, US) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
Want a novel about the writing of novels. Start here.

Carter has the reader questioning, almost immediately, the authenticity of this world and the nature of illusion. Our protagonist Walser, a reporter, shares our skepticism, and leads us into a convoluted, gorgeous telling of Fevver's impossible (yet more and more believable) life.

One of Carter's most brilliant moves is her use of the lewd, the profane, in order to construct a sort of cast iron clarity of everything within the novel. Her language, the landscape, the characters all glisten like the fish scales in the ice bucket of Fevver's dressing room. Set against this clarity is the possibility of miraculousness, a woman hatched from an egg as if from Greek myth, real working wings shivering on her back.

That champagne in fishmonger ice, the scales simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, burn like a retinal shadow throughout Fevver's telling. It's this interplay of the beautiful and grotesque that allows for moments of sublimity. Carter knows the measure of each and combines them in ways that masterfully reveal layers within a single sentence or image.

This is all, again, in the interest of having the reader question the nature of both reality and illusion (interchangeable? Fallacious?). "'What,' said the old man, heavily bribed, 'would be the point of the illusion if it looked like an illusion?'" Leading the reader to wonder then, is illusion illusion if it is recognized, and if it's not, isn't it as solid and real as reality. "'For,' opined the old charlatan to Walser with po-faced solemnity, 'is not this whole world an illusion? And yet if fools everybody.'" And here we have one of the many metamoments of the novel that resonates throughout, leading into the questioning of the reader's experience reading fiction. We are, Carter seems to be telling us, fooling ourselves on purpose, and what for? When we step away from the novel, what remains real and what fades into fiction?

We are tumbled about in this examination of reality/fiction throughout the book, "For, in order to earn a living, might not a genuine bird-woman--in the implausible event that such a thing existed-- have to pretend she was an artificial one?" What about a genuine novelist? A genuine novel? A comment on the nature of existence? An idea?

It seems all of this is climbing towards an existential risk. But Carter manages to balance story with comment well enough to keep that singularity from occurring.

The use of the notebook was a smart choice in keeping the reader reminded, as these tales unwind, that they are being recorded by Walser. The notebook also serves as a symbol of the edge of skepticism and belief, disturbed throughout the first section of the book. Among the best lines: "Her wings throbbed, pulsed, then whirred, buzzed and at last began to beat steadily on the air they disturbed so much that the pages of Walser's notebook ruffled over and he temporarily lost his place, had to scramble to find it again, almost displaced his composure but managed to grab tight hold of his skepticism just as it was about to blow over the edge of the pressbox." In this one long sentence Carter comments on her protagonist's beliefs, the quavering nature of reality/illusion, and the reader's own waffling skepticism.

This is commentary on the first part of the novel only. The rest is worth reading--for the writer, to study the nature of writing, and for the casual reader, to be wowed by the pyrotechnics of Carter's form. It's an all-around win, don't hesitate.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and Very Funny, May 14, 2013
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
Fevvers is the world's greatest aerialist. She stands 6'2" and has fully functional wings. Yes wings. She's loud, crass, and overtly sexual. She is everything a woman of her era is not. And that is the point. Journalist Jack Walser sits down to interview Fevvers in London, with the intention of proving her a fraud. But a strange thing happens; as Fevvers recounts her incredible life story Walser finds himself, like pretty much everyone else, falling in love with her. So he does the obvious thing; he runs away and joins the circus. As Walser and Fevvers travel through Russia we explore the often hilarious, and always heartbreaking, lives of the other circus performers. There's Buffo the great and terrible, and his retinue of clowns; the silent cat-tamer, known as the Princess of Abyssinia; the intelligent apes, far more capable than their handler; the terminally innocent orphan Mignon; and the cowardly strongman Samson. But most importantly we explore the meaning of Fevvers. Fevvers, the evolution of woman, metaphorically speaking, though physically depicted. Though Walser is deeply in love with her, he cannot truly understand or accept Fevvers. He will have to be broken down, erased completely, and rebuilt from the ground up before he is able to love her for who she is, rather than who he expects her to be. Carter's prose is beautiful, and Nights at the Circus is a deeply moving, and very funny novel exploring the themes of individuality, independence, and equality.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Earthily airborne, November 1, 2001
By 
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Paperback)
Only Angela Carter could have devised the coarse golden character of Fevvers, the Cockney miracle around whom this tale spins. Girl takes wing, boy flies after, girl loses and gets wing and boy -- that's mad enough, but it gives not the least taste of the crumbled, intricate, and ultimately wonderful world of this particular circus. Carter's ability to interlace sharp doses of political and intimate realities into the mix not only teaches you lessons unaware, but opens you to a larger definition of what can be. Once upon a time, or somewhere right now, chimpanzees condescend to humans, monstrosities speak with wise prophesy, a pig manages a business better than her owner. So open up another bottle of champagne, and surrender. It will be rough, it will hurt, it will be uproarious. It will ultimately be wonderful. So is this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nights at the Circus: A+, September 1, 2009
This review is from: Nights at the Circus (Oberon Modern Plays) (Paperback)
When I read Angela Carter, I imagine her as the literary grandmother to someone like Kelly Link. There's an eccentric tone of fantasy, an unabashed outlandishness and roguish word-play; there's a thread of challenge running through the narrative, sometimes cleverly concealed and sometimes out in front like so much gaudy embroidery. Carter is a master storyteller with a remarkable gift for language and a willingness to take risks on any front.

But all of the above I already knew from my introduction to Carter, her short story "The Loves of Lady Purple" (check it out in Wayward Girls and Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories).

Nights at the Circus goes beyond the expectations set by "The Loves of Lady Purple". It is more fantastic, more surreal, more political, more challenging, more graphic, and though more forceful also much more subtle. The traveling circus of Colonel Kearney provides such a splendid backdrop for Angela Carter's handiwork that I would not be at all surprised if this is her finest novel {}. The notion of the circus opens up every possibility for her--literate monkeys taking over their own care and negotiating their own compensation, a fortune-telling pig, abject and sociopathic alcoholic clowns {}... And most of that (despite providing its own commentary) seems on the surface to primarily help provide color to a narrative that focuses on a struggle to reconcile independence/individuality with the desire to mate and bond with others. Carter cleverly leads the reader along her characters' paths via totems and proxies, and accelerates us through their worlds in crisis when those totems become threatened and lost.

This is one novel that is as brilliant as it is lyrical.

---
= Again, as of this writing, I've only read this novel and one short story. Though I may perhaps be biased by the strength of the recommendation that J.M. made when suggesting the werk in the first place.

= Not to mention the thorough deconstruction of clowning.
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Nights at the Circus (Oberon Modern Plays)
Nights at the Circus (Oberon Modern Plays) by Angela Carter (Paperback - September 1, 2006)
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