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Nights at the Circus

by Rob Friesel

Nights at the Circus by Angela CarterWhen I read Angela Carter, I imagine her as the literary grandmother to someone like Kelly Link1.  There’s an eccentric tone of fantasy, an unabashed outlandishness and roguish word-play; a challenge runs through the narrative as a thread, sometimes cleverly concealed at the seams 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”2.

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 novel3.  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 clowns4…  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 proxies5, 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.  And is probably one of the most “quotable” books I have read in quite some time.

A version of this review appeared first on

  1. Or: “…as the literary more-demure-but-less-forgiving sister to Kathy Acker“? []
  2. Check it out in Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (q.v., my review, on, a collection that she edited. []
  3. Vide supra, as of this writing, I have 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 this particular werk in the first place. []
  4. Not to mention the thorough deconstruction of clowning. []
  5. P.s., this is the bit that I found most interesting (the totems and proxies) but haven’t really had time to fully unpack.  There is some powerful stuff going on in there:  Fevvers and the sword, Lizzie and the clock, Kearney and the pig, the Princess and the piano…  There’s a lit class essay in there somewhere but I haven’t scraped all the dust off the nugget quite yet. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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