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Half-serious, half-silly, consistently stylish if only fitfully amusing: a farcical picaresque (London to Russia) about an 1899 touring circus--with Carter's usual feminist themes poking and darting just below the frolicsome surface. In the first of three sections, US journalist Jack Walser does an all-night dressing room interview with ""Fevvers,"" a.k.a. ""the Cockney Venus,"" the most famous aerialiste of the day: she's hugely tall, Cockney-earthy, and famous for having wing-like growths on her back (was her father really a swan?)--which allow her, it seems, to do impossibly slow somersaults in the air. Walser is skeptical, yet oddly smitten, as Fevvers tells her life story, assisted by ribald/pedantic asides from foster-mother Lizzie. And the story, though fragmented and distanced by the interview-framework, is a Dickensian doozy: baby Fevvers is abandoned, raised in a cozy brothel, then forced to display herself in Madame Schreck's ""museum of woman monsters"" (where Fewers' deformity is comparatively minor); she nearly gets raped-and-killed by a priapic cultist. (""This is some kind of heretical possibly Manichean version of neo-Platonic Rosicrucianism, thinks I to myself; tread carefully, girlie!"") Now, however, Fewers is a star-attraction, an Amazonian success story--and young Walser is so enraptured that, disguised as a clown, he follows the circus to St. Petersburg. There, in Part II, Walser experiences the humiliations of clownhood, rescues the Ape-man's abused wife (who has her own woeful history), and hesitantly woos the dominating Fewers--who herself fights off yet another rapist. Then Part III takes the circus via train into Siberia, where things get excessively, effortfully wacky: Walser, dumped off the train, is rescued by a band of murderesses, who've just staged a jailbreak (inspired by Sapphic passion); suffering from amnesia, he is adopted by a far-out Shaman, who supplies hallucinogenic urine and speaks ""an obscure Finno-Ugrian dialect just about to perplex three generations of philologists."" And finally, as Walser chants a Siberian version of ""Bird in a Gilded Cage,"" he's rescued by Fevvers--who fears marriage (""My being, my me-ness, is unique and indivisible"") but sees real possibilities in the new, much-humiliated Walser: ""I'll make him into the New Man, in fact, fitting mate for the New Woman, and onward we'll march hand-in-hand into the New Century."" Dense with literary allusions, puns, parodies, and whimsies in the British tradition from Gilbert & Sullivan to Monty Python: an extravagant, baroque variation on familiar themes (the New Woman, the abused woman, the bird in a gilded cage), offering sporadic but rich rewards to connoisseurs of historical/verbal fancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1984
ISBN: 1840026316
Publisher: Viking