Angela Carter has written a fantastical microcosm of life.
Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe's capitals, part swan... or all fake?
Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.
There are so many facets to Angela Carter’s stories that it is hard to find a place to start discussing them. This is a book written about the cusp of the 20th century, where so many things were promised and hoped for and so many changes happened. This story focuses on two people, bound together because of a newspaper story: Jack Walser, the journalist sent to write a story on Sophie Fevvers the “aerialiste extraordinaire”, to find out whether she is fact or fiction, as instead of being a typical trapeze artist she has wings that allow her to fly through the air.
The book is split into three different sections, the first is set in London where Walser meets Fevvers. In this section we are told many stories about Fevvers and how she became the world renowned star. We also get to hear of the remarkable women she knew growing up and how they seem to land on their feet even in the darkest moments.
The second section is set in St. Petersburg and although never really discussing the nights at the circus (or at least the full show, we are always given snapshots of what the performances will be) we are shown the lives of the Circus’ inhabitants as Fevvers has signed on as the star of this circus, still surrounding herself in mystery with the ring master adding speculation to the mystery of his star to get more promotion. Walser follows Fevvers to the circus and ends up working as a clown. From here Walser and Fevvers’ lives continue to overlap, with Walser being dragged into schemes he wasn’t planning on. Both characters become more developed here rather than just journalist and subject. This section we are also introduced to the cast of the circus from the clowns to the other acts, we get to see the fantastic and the mundane whilst learning about the lives of these individuals.
The last section takes our motley cast out of Russia and into Siberia, where more characters are thrust into the action and looped back to earlier parts of the story so that everything is connected. We are shown the naivety of people looking for better lives, who want others to give them something, to the strength of people looking to help themselves. We also see Fevvers and Walser question their identities within the worlds they live in as well as becoming the people they are supposed to be.
Angela Carter has written a fantastical microcosm of life in this book.
Review by Michelle Herbert
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