My Three Favourite… Fictional Circuses

12th Sep 2011


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is published later this week, and in honour of all the accompanying talk of mazes, mirrors, acrobats and illusionists, we’ve compiled our three favourite books featuring fictional circuses:

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love not only features a grotesque freakshow of weird and wonderful characters, it also has one of the most intriguing first lines ever:

“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets, Papa would say, she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”

This ‘star-haired mama’ is none other than Crystal Lil, famed the world over for her live circus act involving biting the heads off like chickens. Together she and her husband Al own the travelling carnival, and when business starts to falter, they have an idea.

Throughout five subsequent pregnancies, Lil self-medicates with an experimental mix of pharmaceuticals, pesticide and even radiation exposure to ensure her children are ‘unique’ enough to keep the turnstiles clicking.

The story of the resulting rag-tag family is by turns bizarre and beautiful, and has become a cult classic beloved by everyone from Margaret Forster to Amanda Palmer.

The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

Including this one might be classed as cheating, because it isn’t actually set in a circus. But even so, Sarah Hall’s 2004 novel The Electric Michelangelo still evokes the carnival magic of Coney Island boardwalk with lush poetic prose.

Nominated for both The Booker and the Orange Prize, it recounts the tale of tattooist Cy Parks, and his journey from Morecambe Bay to America. He sets up among the fairground rides and freakshows, and falls in love with Grace, a circus performer who wants him to tattoo eyes all over her body.

While I’ll admit I haven’t revisited this since reading it when it first came out, at the time I remember being totally besotted by the rich, gorgeous descriptions, and it’s one I want to return to soon.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

And last but not least, no tribute to circuses in fiction would be complete without a mention of gothic grand dame Angela Carter. Her 1984 novel Nights at the Circus is the story of Fevvers, a curvaceous bottle blonde with wings and an aerial act that has made the circus famous.

Beginning with Fevvers telling her tale to journalist Jack Walser, he’s soon seduced into running away with the circus, and their adventures end up taking them from London to Petersburg, Siberia and beyond.

An intoxicating cocktail of fairytale, fantasy and magic realism, Nights at the Circus is as beautifully baroque as you’d expect from Angela Carter, winning critical acclaim and awards aplenty, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Which books have made you want to run away with the circus? Tell us in the comments…

Jane Bradley

(Image via @insomnius’ Flickr photostream)


  • Ruth says:

    Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. Loved by everyone in our reading group – honestly, it’s fantastic!

  • Anna says:

    Can’t go past this without mentioning the wonderful Clown Girl by Monica Drake. It’s not strictly set in a circus but it is beautiful and quirky and very funny. And opens up a whole new weird world you would otherwise never see.

  • Sarah says:

    I second ‘Nights at the Circus’ – and I want to read all the others!

  • Kim Hutson says:

    Agree with ‘Nights at the Circus’, will go and get me a copy of ‘Geek Love’, but where is ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ – one of the best ever books. Ever.

  • Donna says:

    Bloody hell! I’ve read them all,spot the woman with the circus obsession!