For all the extensive research I’ve done on traveling carnivals, carnival history, and the history of pre-carnival rituals and revelries over the years, my own personal carnival experience is more one of the imagination than the sideshow bally or the striped big top. For there is not always a circus on the horizon to run away to or a roaming midway glittering on the outskirts of town, but there are always books. There are always stories. There is always a dream world to get lost in, with just the flick of a page.
Here are a few books to help quench that desire for the topsy-turvy, for the shadows and masks, for the world made upside-down. The carnivals here lie not before your eyes, but can only be found in smoke and mirrors.
Bellocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey’s at times dreamy, at times gritty, collection of ekphrastic poems explore the imagined life of Ophelia, one of the prostitutes famously photographed by E. J. Bellocq in turn-of-the-century Storyville. With poems taking the form of instructions, postcards, letters, diary entries, and reflections, Bellocq’s Ophelia weaves a complex narrative with threads of race, sin, lust, art, and identity all twining together in an endless loop of men looking at women, looking back at men, looking back at them, and on and on.
The Goshawk by T.H. White
T.H. White is known for The Once and Future King and his Arthurian scholarship and fantasies, but it is The Goshawk, a slim, humble volume I found referenced in Helen McDonald’s brilliant H is for Hawk that has haunted my dreams for years. White, frustrated with teaching and yearning to embrace a more wild existence, moves to a country house with a goshawk, determined to tame the bird using archaic methods that prove brutal to both parties. It’s the true portrait of a twisted, complex relationship between a single man and a single bird, pushing and pulling against one each other in a heartbreaking tug-of-war.
The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos by Margaret Mascarenhas
Told in myriad voices, at times snagged, at times tightly meshed, The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos is more about a family and a landscape being spun out of knotted thread than a mystery novel about a missing girl in the Venezuelan rain forest. What appears to be a fragmented narrative comes together in a deceptively smart way that rewards the reader for trusting the author’s vision.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This choice probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many—I mean, I do have a quote from this beloved book tattooed on my arm. But de Saint-Exupéry’s quietly heartbreaking tale is not only a classic, it is an admonishment to look beyond the seen to the unseen, to peel away the mask and look at the bones beneath. It’s also a reminder that both joy and sadness war within our hearts and both are capable of being appreciated with a child’s grasp of wonder.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
While technically Goblin Market is only a single poem, usually nestled among less terrifying offerings in various Rossetti collections, this list wouldn’t be complete without its inclusion. Goblin Market—Rossetti’s glittering, lush, and dark tale of two sisters seduced against their will by goblins—has too many academic interpretations to touch on here, but even at the surface level the poem is a cornucopia of duplicity, sexuality, anxiety, and the deepest darkness heart of worldly and otherworldly temptation.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
Speaking of anxiety, Abe’s existential novel of a Sisyphean feat is bewildering, alarming, and claustrophobic, knocking out more than a few fears all at once. The Woman in the Dunes is the quietly told story of an entomologist who finds himself at the bottom of a sand pit, held captive by villagers who task him with eternally shoveling sand to save both himself and their home. Call it eerie, disturbing, or unsettling—it’s also prose gorgeously wrought and detailing the danger of mirages both on land and in our minds.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Beginning at the end and then moving restlessly across time, The God of Small Things tells the story of a fateful summer in India and the consequences that multiply and reverberate across generations, much like an endlessly shattering mirror, the pieces devastatingly sharp. In the vein of truest storytelling, Roy rips apart the expectations of narrative and quilts together a dazzling family saga.
Euphoria by Lily King
Unlike most of the books on this list, King’s Euphoria offers a more straightforward narrative—the tale of an anthropologist caught both in a love triangle and in a web of her own desires as she works with a tribe in a New Guinea jungle in the 1930s. The sharply depicted contrast of settings, the splitting of voices and the emphasis on role reversals, however, clearly elicit the more ancient roots of the carnival spirit.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Before “Teen Dystopian” or “Post-apocalyptic YA” were household genres, Butler’s Parable of the Sower put us in the mind of a teenage girl living through the violent collapse of civilization as we know it. Lauren, thrust out into the chaos of the remnants of society, must not only struggle to survive, but to navigate the newly fragmented world with a heightened sense of empathy and a religious vision. At times brutal, Parable of the Sower is a twisted commentary on the breakdown and rebuilding anew of a different sort of humanity.
The Changeling by Joy Williams
Reading Williams’s The Changeling may be the closest you can ever reach to stepping inside the mirrored funhouse of a fictional character’s mind. In a shadowy landscape—part seedy Americana, part Kennedy-esque Camelot, part primordial myth-making—we float along with Pearl as she drinks her way through endless days and tries to ignore the mounting anxiety growing like the ring of near-feral children who always surround her. Though punctuated with stark moments of lucidity, The Changeling is truly a beautiful nightmare exploring motherhood, womanhood, and the darker instincts bubbling up within us all.
And to close out this awesome list, we must include Steph Post’s newest novel, Miraculum, forthcoming January 22 from Polis Books! – Ed.
Miraculum by Steph Post
The year is 1922. The carnival is Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum, staked out on the Texas-Louisiana border. One blazing summer night, a mysterious stranger steps onto the midway, lights a cigarette and forever changes the world around him. Tattooed snake charmer Ruby has traveled with her father’s carnival for most of her life and, jaded though she is, can’t help but be drawn to the tall man in the immaculate black suit who conveniently joins the carnival as a chicken-biting geek. Mercurial and charismatic, Daniel charms everyone he encounters, but his manipulation of Ruby turns complicated when it’s no longer clear who’s holding all the cards. Daniel is full of secrets, but he hadn’t counted on Ruby having a few of her own.