In Berlin, her photograph was displayed everywhere in the newsagents' windows next to that of the Kaiser. In Vienna, she deformed the dreams of that entire generation who would immediately commit themselves whole-heartedly to psychoanalysis. Everywhere she went, rivers parted for her, wars were threatened, suns eclipsed, showers of frogs and footwear were reported in the press and the King of Portugal gave her a skipping rope of egg-shaped pearls, which she banked. (p.11)Shameful confession: a friend gave me a copy of this book in the mid-Eighties, and for some reason I didn't read it, and didn't read it ... until now, when it's a bookclub selection. (I am beginning to understand how ... organic my to-read stack has become. And how it evolves.)
1899, a new century banging at the door: the cusp of the modern age, the hinge of the nineteenth century. Fevvers (née Sophie, a foundling) is the world's only winged woman: Nights at the Circus opens with Fevvers being interviewed by intrepid young reporter Jack Walser, who finds himself falling under her spell. In more ways than one as she recounts her picaresque life, from doorstep to brothel to May sacrifice to the high trapeze. Walser is lost. He runs away to join the circus, and travels to and through Russia with Fevvers, her foster-mother Lizzie -- to whom there's considerably more than meets the eye -- and a cast of disparate and desperate characters: a former ghost-impersonator, a troupe of (over-)educated apes, the Princess of Abyssinia whose tigers dance to her piano-playing ...
This is a novel packed with surreal and magical images. Time runs faster, slower, stops: there is a clock stuck at the 'shadowless' hour of noon, or possibly midnight: there is a figure of Father Time abandoned by escaped prisoners who intend to form a lesbian commune in which there'll be no place for fathers. There are other ways in which reality, or at least realism, are subverted. Fevvers boards a train that can't be boarded. The apes, oppressed, revolt and take the means of production into their own hands. (Paws?) There is Lizzie's handbag and the secrets within. There is class warfare (nobility of spirit hand in hand with absence of analysis, that's what's always buggered up the working class). There are several distinct flavours of feminism: it has to be said that the men in this novel are seldom as successful, as fortunate or as good-hearted as the women, but the women have their own kind of magic that is rooted in strength, purity of purpose, determination, independence. There are themes of imprisonment and of escape. And it's all wrapped up in the most superlative writing, with images that are quietly stunning: 'pupils grown fat on darkness', 'the shadowless hours'.
A beautiful book and one I wish I'd read sooner: though I do wonder if I'd have found it as marvellous at 25 as I do now.