A female sexual “predator” who has seduced every man she ever wanted gets married to the wrong guy (her clit is “too large, it’s not normal!” he tells her). A woman falls in love with a tiny male “creature” she finds by the rubbish bin, and dresses him in ballerina skirts, only for him to dissolve in the rain after her ex teaches him how to drink beer and be a “real man”. A young woman commits suicide and then relives her birth (“my head pushing through the warm interior of her vagina”), childhood, and adolescence marked by sexist upbringing and sexual abuse.
These are the stories of three characters that populate Slovak writer Uršuľa Kovalyk’s brilliant collection of short stories The Night Circus and Other Stories, which follows her acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Equestrian.
Mixing magical realism with explicit observations on female sexuality and experience, a splash of humour, and unsentimental sensual descriptions (the first story in the collection starts with the sentence “The air smells of melting plastic.”), Kovalyk redefines womanhood.
Her book is alternatively gentle and brutal. In “Rainy Day Joe”, the narrator directly and humorously expresses her infatuation with her new creature-boyfriend: “I was fascinated by his masculine yet tiny body, his perfectly formed buttocks and beautifully shaped feet. They never smelled.” While often full of gentleness, Kovalyk also shows a flair for vulgarity. In “An Average Dead Father”, the female narrator attending her absent father’s funeral says he had abandoned her “at the very moment of spurting his semen into my mother’s womb to fertilise an egg, the moment he reached orgasm.”
At times it can seem as though the author is a little too reliant on feminist cliches, but then she immediately surprises with observations that do justice to life’s contradictions, such as the two paternal images lodged in the narrator’s head: one of her father’s “drunken, furious face” and the other showing “father’s back, lovingly bent over a puddle, trying to catch young frogs for me.”
Perhaps Kovalyk’s power as a writer is most strongly rooted in her ability to create fresh images by juxtaposing darkness with innocence. The entrance to “Suicide” illustrates this best: “After I committed suicide in my bathroom on 8 May at four in the morning, my soul slipped out of my body like a bar of wet soap from the hands of a clumsy child.”
Excellently translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood, The Night Circus and Other Stories is a must-read for those interested in exploring womanhood in all its dirty, painful, wonderful and enticing complexity — in poetic yet direct, personally political prose.