This is the first of the two Irving novels that my mum bought me for Christmas. And it didn’t disappoint. John Irving is firmly cemented as my favourite author and I intend to read every novel he has written, probably several times. I always thought it was difficult to pin-point an author that was really my absolute ‘favourite’ but it turns out that I just hadn’t read Irving yet. The World According to Garp is one of my favourite novels ever and while A Son of the Circus wasn’t quite as good, it is still a great novel and I really enjoyed reading it.
It had many of the same tropes that Irving uses in his other novels which make them immediately recognisable: a huge cast of characters, improbable but somehow totally believable plot twists, digressions and sidelines, humour and a wonderful portrayal of ‘real’ people. If this book had had a blank cover, I would have still known it was Irving’s.
It took me a little while to get into this novel as Irving’s trademark digressions seemed a bit too excessive at first. It was as though this behemoth of a novel was just trying to find its feet but once its legs were steady, the story really took off. It’s difficult to explain an Irving novel to someone who hasn’t read one – they aren’t the kind of novel that is really gripping yet they are still difficult to put down. It’s not sensation or curiosity that makes you want to read on but instead just an absolute joy in reading and letting yourself be swept along by the magic of Irving’s magnificent story-telling.
A Son of the Circus is a circus of characters. The novel is mostly set in India and the cast includes movie stars, doctors, serial killers, a screenwriter, a missionary, pimps and prostitutes, and a dwarf and his wife to name a few. They are all drawn together in a fantastical web of plot and character that does make you wonder how on earth anyone came up with it! There’s an element of the ridiculous (how could there not be!) but the story doesn’t take itself too seriously and it is written with mischievous humour that demonstrates the intelligence of its author.
I also loved the ending of this novel. Like Garp, A Son of the Circus concludes with an epilogue that neatly draws to a close all the interwoven strands that make up the story. Some might view this as an unsophisticated ending but I like to think that Irving writes his novels, not for critical attention (although in my opinion they are definitely worthy of it), but purely for the enjoyment of his readers. And this kind of ending certainly gives you reader satisfaction. There is still room for a bit of imagination and lasting mystery at the end of the novel but it doesn’t leave you with a frustrating hole of uncertainty about what happened next. There’s no unfinished business and you feel content to leave the characters of the story at the end of the novel, where they belong.
I couldn’t recommend Irving enough!