Monday, 25 March 2013

Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus was an exhilarating read, as long as you can suspend disbelief and accept the reality of a winged woman. Fevvers life  is different from anyone else's, as she appears to have been hatched, raised in a brothel and spends her life as a circus entertainer. The details of this story are fascinating and apart from being a rollicking good read - the description of Fevvers teaching herself to fly is amazing - it also says quite a bit about the position of women in society as the 19th century becomes the 20th. Surprisingly, this is the first Angela Carter novel I have read - as it was published quite some time ago, in 1984, can't think how I missed her writings. The events in the brothel in which Fevvers grows up and begins her life as a performer starting as a cherub perched on a mantelpiece, then graduating to a winged Victory are concluded by the Madam of the brothel dying in  an accident, and the occupants, discovering the house has been left to Madam's brother, burn the house down and go their separate ways into the world.  Fevvers, after one or two  adventures, joins a circus which has an engagement in St Petersburg. During this episode the clowns, including Jack Walser, an American journalist who interviewed Fevvers in London and has followed her to Russia, seem to take centre stage. After the St Petersburg episode, the circus takes a train to Vladivostock, but is blown up while crossing Siberia.

Another first was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale. First published in 1985 ( What was I reading in the 1980's to have missed this as well?) and set in an unspecified future America where the position of women has changed radically, not for the better. Offred, whose tale this is, has become a handmaid to the wife of a Commander. Her function is to bear a child for the commander and his wife. She is not allowed to smoke, drink, read or even work, except for a bit of shopping in company with another handmaid.
Offred's future if she fails in bearing a child is either to be hung at the Wall or be cast out of Gilead, to die of radiation sickness.  Offred's past , recalled in a series of flashbacks, was as a wife and mother, but we do not learn precisely what has happened to her daughter or husband; neither do we learn what happens to Offred herself. A somewhat chilling tale of how that which we presently take for granted can disappear in an instant, and very relevant still today.

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