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Nights at the Circus Paperback – March 4, 1986

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Editorial Reviews


"An ebullient tall tale… spellbinding… entrancing."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Loud, bawdy, and unabashedly sentimental … a wonderfully vital creation."
The New York Times

"Night at the Circus is good, clean fun—well, good fun anyway. Its raunchy moments are steaming, bizarre, at times unsettling, but there is definitely an appreciation here for love, sentiment, and entertainment."
—Raymond Mungo, San Francisco Chronicle

"A three-ring extravaganza … Carter's brand of fanciful and sometimes kinky feminism has never been more thoroughly or entertainingly on display."

From the Back Cover

“A glorious piece of work… The narrative has a splendid ripe momentum, and each descriptive touch contributes a pang of vividness.” -- TLS

“Intensely amusing and also provocatively serious. This is a big, superlatively imagined novel.” -- Observer --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (March 4, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140077030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140077032
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,686 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Angela Carter (1940-1992) was the author of many novels, collections of short stories, plays, and books for children.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: 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 By Amenophis III on March 23, 2001
Format: 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 naïf 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.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 23, 1998
Format: 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 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 By Margaret Fiore on November 11, 1998
Format: 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 By gammyraye on February 8, 2013
Format: 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, " 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.
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