Backwards Through A Telescope – ‘The Invisible Circus’ by Jennifer Egan

Due to the popularity and prize-winning capabilities of ‘A Visit From A Goon Squad’ Jennifer Egan’s backlist has been reissued.  This has given me a rare opportunity to read an author’s body of work in reverse order. I’ve seen many authors mature (and deteriorate) as their body of work expands, but never before have I retraced the steps of a novelist’s evolution.  For ‘Goon Squad’ Egan played literary magpie, giving the novel a post-modern structure and multiple styles. ‘Look at Me’ was a much more straightforward (if scarily prescient) affair. So as I travel backwards in time, how would I find Egan’s début novel ‘The Invisible Circus’?

Firstly, it is by far the easiest of the three to read. There are none of the literary tricks of ‘Goon Squad’ and none of the thesaurus swallowing prose that occasionally marred ‘Look at Me’. This is much simpler narrative; a straightforward coming-of-age novel.  Whilst less ambitious in scope, as you might expect from a first novel, ‘Invisible Circus’ is still highly readable and thought provoking.

It’s 1978 and Phoebe O’Connor is eighteen.  She lives with her Mum in San Francisco. Her father died when she was a young girl, and her older sister, Faith, died whilst travelling in Italy.  The shadow of Faith hangs over Phoebe, in particular the circumstances of her death.  She fell from a cliff, but did she jump or was it a drug-induced accident?  Phoebe is reaching a crisis point in her life.  Having lived in the shadow of two dead loved-ones, can she step into the light? More to the point, does she want to?  When her mother starts talking about selling the family home, and introduces Phoebe to the new man in her life, Phoebe decides to follow in Faith’s footsteps.

There are some curious time-lags in this novel.  I’m reading it in 2012, it was written in 1995, set in 1978 with a back-story set in the 1960’s. Faith’s story begins in the revolutionary year of 1968.  She was a headstrong girls who drew people towards her and made things happen.  Phoebe is the complete opposite. All three of Egan’s books share a common theme; the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Here Phoebe is paralysed by the weight of the stories surrounding her sister, and the image she has of her father.  Egan’s depiction of Phoebe’s grief is raw and well-realised.

As she travels across Europe, Phoebe realises that the perfect pictures she has of her family do not match up to reality.  Faith was not the principled idealist she thought she was, neither was she as happy an in control as she had appeared.  Phoebe’s father had a destructive relationship with all his children, and as Phoebe accepts this, she can begin to move on.  There is an inevitable romantic liaison, Phoebe’s first, which is beautifully well-realised.  Youthful passion is captured perfectly, and the pages fizz with the sexual energy that goes hand in hand with young love (he says, bitterly).

There is not a strong sense of plot to ‘Invisible Circus’, it simply charts Phoebe’s transition from girl to woman.  Anybody reading ‘Invisible Circus’ will recognise the emotions felt by Phoebe on her journey;  her wish to rebel but need to confirm are sentiments felt by countless young adults.  This an accomplished novel.  Whilst it won’t enhance Egan’s reputation on its own, it is an excellent read. ‘Invisible Circus’ shows that Egan is an author who had a handle on the human condition right from the start of her career.

I wish to thank Sam at Corsair (an imprint of Constable and Robinson) for affording me the chance to review this book. 

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