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Posts Tagged ‘Orange Prize’

The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Thus begins Erin Morgenstern’s sparkling debut novel The night circus. Charming. Enchanting. Magical. Just three of the words that have been used to describe it—all of them deserved. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two old adversaries representing different schools of magic challenge each other yet again for another of their contests to decide which of their teaching methods rules supreme. They are Hector Bowen, whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter (Morgenstern has a love of Shakespeare, having also taught the bard at high school), and the grey-suited A. H—, whose name (Alexander) is obscured because that’s the way he rolls. Hector nominates his daughter Celia, while AH selects an unnamed orphan boy, whom he gives the name Marco Alisdair. Celia and Marco are bound to the contest and each other. They grow up knowing they are destined for the mysterious contest, whose rules are shady at best. They spend their childhoods learning magic and waiting for the challenge to begin. But the contest needs an arena and it is decided that a particular type of circus will be it. Cue the theatrical impresario Chandresh, who creates the night circus, sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The game must be played out until there is a winner, and there can only be one winner, for the loser in these contests typically dies. So what happens if the two contestants fall in love?

The narrative is split into three strands. The first comprises short, second-person pieces that are interspersed between the main two strands, placing the reader into the action. You get to walk through the gates and enter the tents and taste the food and see the attractions. I’m not entirely sure whether this strand is necessary given the reality of the circus painted in the main strand—that of the contest between Celia and Marco. The third strand focusses on a young boy named Bailey, who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, who is trying to decide what to do with his life and who wants to leave the farm he grows up on for a life of adventure.

Drawn to an audition for a circus, Celia immediately impresses Chandresh’s clique, including her opponent, Marco: “Then, so swiftly she appears not even to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth.”  It gives us a taste of the magical realism and surrealism to come. At this stage, Marco recognises Celia as his opponent, but she does not know he is hers. Gradually she becomes aware of who she is playing, but not before she has fallen in love with him because of the to and fro of their illusions that captivate and astound those lucky entrants to the night circus—including us!

Morgenstern writes in exacting prose that has a mystery of its own, readings as distant, luscious and cinematic all in the same moment. (Unsurprisingly, the movie rights have been snapped up already.) If there are faults, they include a sentimental end and a tendency toward slightly flowery prose in some of the romantic scenes. However, these rare missteps are soon forgotten, for the circus is a wonderland of black and white tents, with characters every bit as mysterious as the circus itself. The magical is commonplace. There is a huge bonfire that never goes out and burns with a white flame—Marco’s opening trick or ‘move’. Each tent is a different attraction, many of them created as illusions by Celia and Marco as part of the contest—and increasingly as part of their love for the other. Some are even wonderful collaborations between the two of them. There are three-dimensional cloud mazes, wishing trees, ice rooms, and the tent where Celia performs as an illusionist herself. The circus travels the world, to London, Cairo, Budapest, Lyon, Paris, Boston, New York and all points in between. Even my hometown Sydney gets a visit!

Meanwhile, Bailey’s story operates in different years, so we have a constant back and forth as the two strands are gradually brought together. Bailey is drawn into the circus by twins, Poppet and Widget, who were born on the first night of the circus to two of its performers, and who become performers themselves. The children enjoy chocolate mice, cinnamon twists and “edible paper, with detailed illustrations in them that match their respective flavors.” Bailey is unsure about his future. He has his tarot cards read by Isobel, who is also in love with Marco. She says to him: “You are part of a chain of events, though you may not see how your actions will affect the outcome at the time.” Just what Bailey’s purpose in the story is remains unclear until the climax.

This story drew me in and didn’t let me go. Long-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, it’s a wonderful achievement, pure storytelling. There’s a name given to those who follow the Night Circus the world over, relying on an informal network of similarly minded enthusiasts to alert them as to where the circus has magically pitched its tents: rêveurs. They wear the black and white of the circus performers but add a dash of red to mark themselves. They are part of the circus, but not of the circus. I think most readers of Morgenstern’s novel will count themselves as members of this unique club. Me? I’m off to find a scarlet scarf…

The night circus by Erin Morgenstern

2011

Vintage

490 pages

ISBN: 9780099554790

Source: the local municipal library

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The Dilettante’s Rules of Reading: #47: “Any novel that uses the word ‘menagerie’ must be good.” 

Indeed!  So you can perhaps imagine my high level of expectation for a novel that uses ‘menagerie’ in its title, right?   And right from the open, Jamrach’s Menagerie doesn’t disappoint.  It kicks-off with these wonderful lines:

I was born twice.  First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began

Immediately engaging, it reminded me of the vivid start to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, (see my review here), which ironically won the 2011 Orange Prize beating out a strong shortlist — and the long-listed Jamrach’s Menagerie.      

So sets in motion the story of Jaffy Brown, recounted in the first person, who is rescued out of the jaws of the tiger by Mr Jamrach himself.  Mr Jamrach has Tim Linver, a boy near Jaffy’s age, buy Jaffy a raspberry puff, perhaps in part to purchase his silence.  For a poor boy like Jaffy, such a treat is a wonder, but the taste of the raspberry puff comes back to haunt him later in the book in a way that he couldn’t at that point imagine.  Jamrach offers him a job working in his menagerie, into which exotic animals from all over the world are brought back in order to satisfy the curiosity of rich gentlemen in 19th Century London.    

There he develops a fraught friendship with Tim, and is introduced through him to his sister, Ishbel, who he develops quite a crush for, as well as Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s animal hunter.  When Tim is sent off with Dan to the South Pacific to bring back a dragon on the whale ship Lysander, Jaffy feels compelled to go with them on the adventure of a lifetime.    

There follows a wonderful series of scenes, including whale hunts at sea and dragon hunts on a remote, jungle-covered island.  There are ill portents aplenty, surfacing before they even find the dragon.  Trying to locate it, they go from island to island talking to the locals, who some on the ship fear might be cannibals…  [p140]:

Then we had the Lord’s Prayer – ‘… deliver us from evil…’ – hanging our heads and thinking about cannibals and swamps and monsters awaiting us tomorrow.

Then when the hunting party finds the almost mythical beasts, Jaffy sees [p156]:

A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. 

The subsequent hunt is breath-taking stuff, wonderfully vivid, a joy to read. 

With their dragon caught, they cage him on the ship and start out for home, a passage in which their lives are placed in peril, chased by storms, water spouts, and bad luck.  With the dragon secured in its pen in the fo’c’s’le, we have Jaffy ruminating on their new passenger thus, [p177]:

How was it that we became so afraid of the dragon?  Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more.  We took on bad luck with that creature

When disaster strikes, the question becomes: to what lengths will people go in order to survive against impossible odds?  Birch executes these scenes with such gut-wrenching accuracy it’s impossible to put the book down. 

The story is based on a combination of unrelated, actual events.  Jamrach was a real, Victorian-era importer of animals, and a boy did go up to a tiger which had escaped its cage and try to pat it only to be bitten and rescued by the owner.  The second event is the sinking of the whaleship Essex (which of course provided the inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick), and those who survived it.   

There are lovely nods to Moby-Dick.  Ishbel for Ishmael, for instance.  And Jaffy seeing a painting of a ship in Jamrach’s shop, just as Ishmael sees one in the pub-cum-boarding house he stays in the night before he climbs aboard his own ship.  Says Jaffy, [p38]:

The raised lantern revealed a painting of a curious vessel that reared up tall out of the sea at either end, a high-shouldered, many-turreted, floating castle of a ship, a thing upon which in a dream you might embark and sail away to the ends of the earth

There are, no doubt, many others. 

Vivid right from the start, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent read, and Jaffy Brown and the crew he sails with are memorable characters.  I’ll not look at a raspberry puff in the same way again! 

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Text Publishing

2011

ISBN: 9781921758959

346 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Congratulations to Tea Obreht for winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK, for her sparkling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife.  You can read my review here.  See also my summary of Tea’s discussion of the novel at last month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival here.

Judges praised Obreht’s story-telling ability, how she weaves the barbarity of the Balkans conflict into a story about stories and the love they can inspire in us.  You can see the announcement at the Orange Prize website here.  

You can read the Guardian’s article on the ‘surprise’ winner here.  (Room by Emma Donoghue was the hot favourite to win.)  See also the Guardian’s follow-up opinion piece on the victory for Obreht here in which The Tiger’s Wife is praised for its exuberance – a starkly different novel to Room

Well deserved. 

The D!

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I don’t get too excited by longlists, but both the Miles Franklin and The Orange Prize for Fiction longlists have been announced, and already there are interesting ‘clash of the titans’-type billings in each. 

In the Miles Franklin, heavy-weights Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally lead the list, with some other notable inclusions such as Alex Miller:

Lovesong by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing)

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

Sons of the Rumour by David Foster (Picador)

The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (Vintage)

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest (Vintage)

Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust (Fremantle Press)

Figurehead by Patrick Allington (Black Inc.)

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Hamish Hamilton)

Truth by Peter Temple (Text Publishing)

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin)

The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally (Knopf)

In the Orange Prize, will it be another shootout between Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Waters’ The Little Stranger?  Or will someone else surprise?  I know a couple of people who will be cheering Waters on that’s for sure. 

Also, I read a very interesting article by Daisy Goodwin, one of the Orange judges for this year who, after reading 129 entries(!!) has pleaded with authors and publishers to ‘spare us the misery’ and asks the question: where is all the humour?  I couldn’t agree more!  It seems the misery memoir just won’t die. 

The longlist is:

Clare Clark, Savage Lands

Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds

Roopa Farooki, The Way Things Look to Me

Rebecca Gowers, The Twisted Heart

M.J. Hyland, This is How

Sadie Jones, Small Wars

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

Laila Lalami, Secret Son

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Attica Locke, Black Water Rising

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Maria McCann, The Wilding

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy

Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

Monique Roffey, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Now that is a long list!

Also, continuing her remarkable run of success, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in the US. 

Your thoughts?

The D!

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