The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

by eashmere

After Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ her many fans rushed to read her earlier works. Egan’s debut novel ‘The Invisible Circus’ was first published in 1995 and has now been rereleased.

Set in San Francisco in 1978, the heady days of Haight-Ashbury’s so-called ‘love ins’ have disintegrated, although Hippie Hill is still frequented by bemused tourists and a motley parade of lost souls. Eighteen-year-old Phoebe O’Connor slips through the streets in the ‘opaque, linty light’ as if in a dream. But she is also keenly aware she is living in the shadow of her elder sister Faith, a wild-child, who died while travelling through Europe eight years before.

Back at the family home, Phoebe sleeps in Faith’s old bedroom, preserved like a slowly fading museum. She wears her sister’s old Indian skirts and blouses and keeps a stack of yellowing newspaper clippings recording Faith’s radical student activities at Berkley when politics were explosive and revolutionary. Everything about Faith’s short life seems splashed with colour, significance and risk compared to Phoebe’s dull existence. Trapped in indecision and passivity, she longs to be ‘on the opposite side of her life’.

Rattling around the family house is Phoebe’s widowed mother who is spending more time with her flashy film producer boss. Phoebe’s once nerdy gadget-making brother Barry, has made his first million through his computer hardware inventions and likes to drive his red Porsche fast through the hilly streets.

When it is suggested Phoebe’s mother sell the house, Phoebe decides she no longer matters in anyone’s life. After cashing in an inheritance left by her late father, she runs away to Europe clutching a wad of adventure-filled postcards written home by Faith.

The aim of Phoebe’s lonely odyssey is to trace her older sister’s steps. But she soon discovers London is not the same city Faith wrote about, nor is Amsterdam. Haunted by uncertainty about Faith’s apparent suicide in a tiny Italian seaside town, Phoebe goes to extremes in her attempt to find out if there was something else going on.

This is a gritty, assured and artfully written story of loss, grief and recovery. Egan offers piercing insights into American mainstream and radical counter-culture as she rakes through the mythology, drugs and hedonism, and lays bare how some people’s well-intentioned idealism was almost destined to turn destructive and sour.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo

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