Best to dive into this book with no expectation. Yes, it is about a circus and the entertainers, but it is not like prose that you’ve read before. Carter’s style is unique for somebody who wrote in the late 20th century. Nights remind me of Bulgakov — think The Master and Margarita. Two-thirds of the book is set in Russia, after all.
When I read these books, I have a constant uneasy feeling in the back of my throat. Nights is reminiscent of this feeling of discomfort. Maybe it is the difficulty of the prose, that swings from past to present fluidly like a ticker, or it could be the larger than life characters, who are all so so intense. If anything else, it is the essence of the book — the grimy, ugly side of the circus, whorehouses, nomadic tribes which in some way connect us to our primitive side that we don’t visit too often.
The novel opens with an interview of Fevvers, the half-human half-swan aerialiste, who are not graceful by any means in her changing room, accompanied by her pseudo ex-whore mother Lizzie and interviewed by a timid American gaffer, Jack Walser. Her voice is like ‘dustbin-lid’ and she often farts liberally (‘Better out than in’). She traces her story back when the prostitutes found her as an orphan, and how she became a success story in the circus. The first part is unique in that the story is conveyed by a mish-mash of drunken dialogue — constantly uneasy and always on edge.
The second and third parts follow the circus from St Petersburg to Siberia. The character list in these two parts expand significantly and the reader will have to deal with all of them and keep track in her mind who belongs where. But all these characters are wonderfully written, and even though they serve as a microcosm, these minor characters are hardly ever shallow. From the top of my head this character list includes an imposing clown-leader, an intelligent monkey who only want to constantly improve his act, a cowardly strongman and a young German harlot.
The notion of identity is central in Nights, especially how the characters use their identity. Fevvers is both a swan and a person, but she is also a woman. Identity is fluid, and not set in stone. At the end of the book, the fact that Fevvers reflected that she may be fictional broke her down. Walser also played the part of a reporter and a clown. When he broke his arm, he could no longer play the part of a reporter and can only be a harlequin in clown-chicken suit. Similarly, when Fevvers broke her wings, her identity as an aeraliste declined, which also affected her state. Fevvers is also protective of her name. Not many characters know her as Sophie, and for the ones who managed to get hold of her name, she became defensive and on edge towards them. Even at the end, when Walser and Fevvers eloped, Walser still calls her ‘Fevvers’.
Nights is more complex than its premise, and it is a wild read. Pay attention closely, because the prose changes as often as the identities of the character. Timelines are shifted from the present to the back story. The dialogues are uncanny, the whole book is as Fevvers’ voice — loud like a dustbin lid.