Writers of surreal novels featuring the enchanting wonders of the circus have created a sort of nanogenre within the umbrella of magical realism. Morgenstern’s 2011 novel The Night Circus is a well-known recent entry, but the ethereally beautiful The Gracekeepers by Scottish author Kirsty Logan may have closer ties to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984). Expanded from a component in Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014), her debut novel contains a minimal, slow-building plot. But it is full of sensual prose that overlays a core of rich characters, a corporeal yet deeply intellectual feminism, and an overarching theme of transcendence.
Struggling for existence in a waterlogged world, the society of The Gracekeepers is stratified between "damplings" drifting upon the vast oceans, and the well-off, but simple, "landlockers" fortunate enough to reside on the mainland. The story primarily follows the alternating point of view of two characters, Callanish and North, who are each trying to find identity while hiding secrets from the world.
Callanish lives in self-imposed island exile as a gracekeeper, an officiator of funerary rituals for those that perish at sea. Placing caged birds as markers of watery graves, she helps others move past loss while yet unable to resolve her own regrets. Ever floating on the sea, meanwhile, North travels within a convoy of ships comprising the Circus Excalibur. Having taken over the bear act that years ago killed her parents, North’s only family is now her fellow performers. Together they entertain in exchange for the food and resources that only land can provide.
Callanish and North inhabit a poetically rendered universe that simultaneously feels wholly invented while also being based on our reality, historical while also a dystopic future, fragmented though united in strong familial bonds.
The land that her ancestor mapped no longer existed. The contours of mountains and valleys, the lines denoting when one country became another, the shaded colors to show kingship: all of it was gone under the endless ocean. Back then it had shown the real world. Now it was only history, stories of a place that once was. (p. 127)
The basics of fantasy world-building are there, such as the ritualistic, spiritual aspects of gracekeeping. Logan also includes political factions in the society, such as a "revivalist" religious sect and an oppressive military that maintains some sort of authority over landlockers and damplings alike.
But not all of the questions about what this world contains or how these societies came to be are answered. This contributes to the dreamlike quality of the novel: some aspects are familiar and clear, while others remain otherworldly and murky. Logan’s familiarity with and rapture for the craggy waters of Scotland make that murky atmosphere of the novel paradoxically shimmer.
Back in her bunk, tucked in beside the musty warmth of her bear, North fell asleep with her hands linked tight over her belly. In her dream [ . . . ] the beat of an enormous heart shushed and roared like waves. Through her closed eyelids, the world showed in reds and purples: the branching lines of anemones, the nodules of coral, the hard lumps of rock and mussel. Inside North was the sea . . . (p. 103)
The eeriness of The Gracekeepers thus arises from the isolation found between two extremes: the boundless ocean and the confines of coracles or island exile. What makes Logan’s novel so compelling is not just the writing style and setting, but how she weaves these in with her characters, picking out timeless themes of death, love, and transcendence.
Again and again Logan plays with expectations and assumptions of her characters and readers, rejecting labels of either/or. The novel is not fantasy or realism, historical or futuristic. It can be both and in-between. The leader of the circus has dreams for his son Ainsel to marry North and settle down on land. With this plot point, Logan addresses issues of power and self-determination for women (and men). But she also explores North’s choices between loyalty to various members of her circus family, to her bear, and to herself. North’s choice could transcend one option to the exclusion of another. Callanish faces similar decisions, and ultimately the novel’s protagonist is not Callanish or North, but the possibilities that arise from the meeting of the two.
Playing with binary choices is most overtly present in The Gracekeepers when it comes to subversive gender-bending elements within the Circus performances:
Her body fitted the silhouette of a boy’s. Her small breasts, her growing belly: all wrapped tight, all padded and bound in white. Her body gleamed like a marble statue. The styled tumble of her dark hair, now that the crowd looked more closely, seemed more like the mane of an unkempt boy. Blink and she’s a girl. Blink again and he’s a boy. Once more he turns to she, right in front of your eyes. (p. 46)
The feminist elements to the novel build around this kind of play with the binary and choice; as in what I know of Angela Carter’s work, these elements also corporeally manifest in the female body. Both of Callanish and North’s secrets involve shame over what some element of their society view in women as a physical stigma. Their need to make choices stems directly from how others label their condition as women. Logan’s theme of transcendence in The Gracekeepers therefore illustrates how these characters are able to move on from this state, like mourners working through loss.
Logan’s debut novel is deceptively quiet and simple, but there is something powerful brewing underneath. Those looking primarily for adventure, romance, and a quick-moving plot will probably be underwhelmed. But those intrigued by shades of fairy-tale amid modern themes and stunning prose may want to give this haunting fantasy a deeper look.
Daniel Haeusser is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Canisius College in Buffalo. Daniel publishes book reviews on Reading 1000 Lives. He also writes for the American Society For Microbiology blog Small Things Considered, contributes book reviews to The Skiffy and Fanty Show and Atticus Review, and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.