Fevvers, the winged wonder, is a star of the stage. Or is she a charlatan? This is the conundrum that brings American journalist Jack Walser backstage to interview her for a new series of articles, provisionally entitled ‘Great Humbugs of the World’. As the young Californian listens to the story of her life over a night that never seems to end, he slowly becomes besotted with this giant, extravagant and utterly misleading woman.
Sophie Fevvers has wings and can fly and she claims to have been born from an egg. Even she is mystified by how she came into being, and her ever-present attendant Lizzie isn’t letting on either. Yet the longer he spends with her, Walser becomes more and more convinced that she may just be telling the truth about her weird origins:
‘there was a great ripping in the hindquarter of my chemise, and, all unwilled by me, uncalled for, involuntarily, suddenly, there broke forth my peculiar inheritance – these wings of mine! … moist, sticky, like freshly unfurled foliage on an April tree. But, all the same, wings.
Bewitched by Lizzie and Fevers, Walser decides to throw in his lot with the circus and become a clown, the lowest of the low even amongst society’s outcasts. So begins a hurly-burly journey across Russia to Siberia with a cast of grotesques, elephants and tigers, a journey that leaves nobody unchanged.
The Russian setting gives Carter ample opportunity to flaunt her mastery of winter weather:
Fevvers rolled through the beautiful city as the snow came whirling down in huge, soft flakes. The old woman, the big baboushka in the sky, was shaking her mattress overhead, shaking it with great abandon as if preparing a feather bed for a gargantuan coupling. Snow whirled down on the Neva, there to dissolve upon the ice-thickened water; some snow clung to the crowns and folded forearms of the civic monuments, to the carved cornices of pediment and portico, to the mane and tail of the mount of the stone horseman, a white transforming fall
As a work of magic realism, Nights at the Circus is clearly inspired by the baroque splendour of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and in turn, it has inspired many other later authors such as Jeanette Winterson and David Mitchell. It is, though, an extraordinary book, one that makes no attempt to masquerade as anything else (unlike the characters themselves).
At times, this novel breaks the frame to such a degree that it becomes almost like a cartoon. There is a carefree abandon in the way in which Carter ignores all the rules. It’s raunchy, filthy, poetic, baroque, wonderful, confusing and full of entrancing digressions. Although Carter loves to wrap us in her rich prose, she never forgets that she has a story to tell too, and this novel is a wonderful travelling companion.
In terms of themes, Nights at the Circus is about how people become trapped, but also about how people allow themselves to become trapped. This may be due to time, greed, lust, stupidity, but most of all to cruelty. Carter never shies away from showing us people’s dark desires, and though Fevvers can always fly away from her would-be captors, there are some forces in this world that even she can not elude.