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Faith in the past.

September 11, 2012

The exceptionally talented Jennifer Egan has experienced an enthusiastic surge of interest from readers and publishers alike since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with 2011’s masterful A Visit From the Goon Squad. Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, a remarkably assured exploration of identity and youth, is the last of her backlist to be reissued for the Australian market; it’s a welcome addition to our shelves, and further testament to Egan’s impressive scope as a novelist.

It’s 1978, and 18-year-old Phoebe O’Connor’s older sister, Faith, has been dead for eight years. An idealistic but damaged wild child who seemed to embody the spirit of the radical sixties, Faith supposedly killed herself by jumping off a cliff in Italy while travelling through Europe.

Almost a decade on, Phoebe is still haunted by her sister’s death; Faith’s absence, and the mythology Phoebe has woven around her short but troubled life, has become the shroud through which Phoebe views the world. Hers is a life half-lived: sleeping in Faith’s old room, memorising the words on the postcards Faith sent from Europe, Phoebe has immortalised the past at the expense of engaging in the present.

But Faith’s tragedy has its own precedent: Phoebe’s father died of leukaemia when Faith was fourteen and Phoebe seven. The apple of her father’s eye, his death prompted Faith’s descent into a self-destructive rebellion; for Faith, ‘any sense of an ending had awakened in her a driving need to prolong whatever it was’, and this culminated, ironically, in the end of her own life.

Much as Phoebe takes comfort in the cocoon of her memories, she senses its oddity: she rarely invites people over, because sometimes, ‘when outsiders came into Faith’s room, Phoebe glimpsed herself through their eyes and was terrified’. When she finally sees that her mother has moved on from her father’s death, anger and confusion give way to the conviction that she must discover what really happened to Faith. Taking Faith’s postcards, Phoebe packs a bag and leaves for Europe. But her attempt to immerse herself in the past by retracing her sister’s steps is what finally leads to her own painful and cathartic awakening, a bittersweet entry into adulthood that grants her a kind of escape—but not without its emotional cost.

The Invisible Circus is too complex a novel, and Egan too clever a writer, for Phoebe’s story to become just another trite tale of self discovery. Phoebe’s experience encapsulates the fragility and confusion of youth, of seeing that misalignment between who you want to be and who you really are. Alone and unhappy in Belgium in the early days of her trip, Phoebe realises that when she imagined heself abroad, ‘she’d always pictured someone else, physically even, a tall blonde with an answer for everything—as if, in the course of this journey, she would not only shed her former life but cease to exist as herself’.

But Phoebe’s luck changes when she has a chance encounter in Germany. As she finally gleans more information about her sister’s final weeks, she begins to experience, for the first time, a true sense of herself, and a connection with another person that lets her see the past in a new—perhaps less forgiving—light, and start coming to terms with it.

It’s this negotiation between past and present that Egan handles so well, and that gives the novel such an interesting dimension: The Invisible Circus is not just a coming-of-age tale, but a study in nostalgia and melancholy, and how it can nourish as well us destroy us. Phoebe is entranced by the hippie culture of the 60s—mostly because it seems to represent the essence of her sister. But her fascination with this moment in history blinds her to its failures, just as the myth she has constructed around her father—and, in turn, the way her father ‘used Faith to bolster all kinds of myths about himself’—blinds her to the truth, at least for a while. ‘”It was all about watching ourselves happen”’, Faith’s old boyfriend, Wolf, tells Phoebe of their hippie days. ‘”At one point it seemed clear that if we just kept pounding away like we were, some gigantic force would, like, lift us away. And today, the ones who pounded the hardest are pretty much all dead. So you’ve got to ask yourself: How well was that working?”’

Running like an undercurrent through the narrative is Faith, and fragments of her postcards that Phoebe carries with her for part of the journey, their innocent enthusiasm giving little away: ‘”Paris, wow!!”‘, she writes, ‘”and everything is spiritual and when someone leaves maybe you won’t ever see them again but so what, even in that little time you can still love them'”. Although we only ever glimpse Faith through the words and memories of others, she’s a remarkably vivid character, and the strength of her presence makes Phoebe’s journey all the more affecting without straying into sentimentality.

In the midst of this, Egan constructs some remarkable set pieces: the scene where Phoebe endures her first acid trip in the streets of Paris is mesmerising and horrifying, and her encounter with a Spanish student who shows her the Cathedral of Reims is beautiful and sad. As the novel reaches its climax in Corniglia, the town where Faith died, fresh revelations ratchet up the narrative tension.

The Invisible Circus is a powerful and nuanced work that balances the inner lives of its characters with the universal experiences of growing up and facing our deepest fears and our hardest losses. Phoebe’s loss of her sister is unique, but Egan’s depiction of her protagonist’s gradual awakening, her sudden immersion in the heady rush of first love, distils the essence of what it is to be young, and to feel that your life is finally beginning.

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