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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Circus

Jonas Karlsson

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To purchase The Circus

Title: The Circus
Author: Jonas Karlsson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Circus - US
in: The Room | The Invoice | The Circus - UK
The Circus - Canada
  • Swedish title: Cirkus
  • Cirkus is "based on a text included in the collection Den perfekte vännen, 2009"
  • Translated by Neil Smith

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Our Assessment:

B : solid character-portrait, but the story-approach doesn't quite pan out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly A 27/11/2019 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Karlsson’s knack for Kafkaesque surrealism and suspense is wonderfully paired with sardonic humor and a deeply sympathetic protagonist. This excellent, clever yarn is Karlsson’s best yet." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the narrator of The Circus complains: "I hate it when people disappear into mirrors and don't come back". Well, who doesn't ? But such a disappearance is the premise of the novel: the narrator relates how he was invited by his longtime friend, Magnus Gabrielsson, to a circus performance and, when Magnus volunteered for the magician's act, he disappeared into a mirror -- and never came back.
       The narrator is initially annoyed but not overly concerned; he waits around for Magnus during and after the show, but he doesn't, for example, seek out the magician to ask what happened to his friend. But soon he comes to obsess over his missing friend -- or rather, his friend's missingness.
       The narrator reports that they weren't even really that close any longer:

     Magnus Gabrielsson always made me feel guilty. We were old childhood friends and nowadays only met up every couple of years out of duty. We'd sit and stare at each other in awkward silence, saying it was good to see each other, that we really must do this more often, that we ought to go bowling sometime. Then we'd go our separate ways, relieved that we didn't have to go through that again for another year or so.
       The story, presented in short chapters (forty-two, for the under-two-hundred page novel), drifts back and forth between the narrator wondering about what happened to Magnus (and trying to re-connect with him) and reminiscences of their youth. He describes how there were two schools in their neighborhood when they were growing up: Vira Elementary [which is apparently not an 'elementary school' as understood in the US], which he attended and which: "only had well-behaved pupils who were motivated to study" -- though the narrator's experience would seem to belie that -- and Berg School, "notorious for its thugs, bullies, and genuinely criminal students", which Magnus attended ("But probably not regularly", he notes). Both boys were bullied at school, though the narrator insists Magnus had it much worse; as to himself, he often offers rationalizations of what was done to him, as if most of the instances were somehow understandable or excusable.
       The narrator was very much a loner, and isolated. He withdrew into music, including spending much of his time at school with the headphones of his Walkman on, allowing him complete escape: "As soon as I put my headphones on they could push me about however they wanted without it mattering at all". The loss of his Walkman is a lingering trauma that also comes to play in the story; certainly, without this armor to protect him from the school bullies he felt even more exposed and vulnerable.
       Magnus was practically the only person he really associated with -- though the narrator was also critical of the sad sack, and their friendship does not appear to be a particularly close one -- more like two outcasts gravitating to each other for want of any alternatives. And the narrator admits:
In a way it had been surprisingly easy just to ignore Magnus back then. I simply made my mind up and tuned out the frequency on which his voice was audible. I concentrated on my music instead. If I decided he didn't exist, then he didn't.
       Hmmm .....
       But he's bothered by the situation he finds himself in now:
Back then I was the one who decided what the rules were.
     Now it was him. And he was gone.
       And the narrator reflects on the influence his relationship with the now-missing man had on him growing up:
     More and more often I found myself wondering what sort of person I would have been if Magnus hadn't existed. Who I might have become if the two of us hadn't hung out together all the time.
       In the present day the narrator works in a bakery; he still lives a relatively isolated life. His obsession with what became of Magnus disrupts his usual routines; it really gnaws at him. He takes to trying to call Magnus, but the line is always busy. And things get even more confusing for him when he begins receiving telephone calls, from some 'silent caller' -- someone who won't say anything but eventually responds to him in music, a back and forth sort of mixed tape emerging on their 'calls'.
       The narrator is nudged towards a resolution by Jallo, whom he knew from the summer camp he attended in his early teens; the slightly older boy had been "a hyperactive hippie kid" -- and he attended Berg school (though he never encountered Magnus there ...). Already in high school he had set up a sort of help-line business, figuring there was a need: "to take care of all the lost souls industry had left behind", and it had grown into a larger company. Typically, too: "Magnus didn't like Jallo".
       The novel's conceit seems rather obvious, pretty much from the get-go -- hey, Magnus disappears into a mirror ! -- and the narrator's (limited) self-awareness and his (continuing re-)assessment of the situation he finds himself in can be a bit enervating, but Karlsson does present the damaged soul quite well, especially in his reflections on the hurt inflicted on him at school and his attempts to keep the pain of that at bay.
       The wending narrative does allow for some surprises and interesting turns, but given how clear it is what is actually going on here, The Circus is more character-portrait than psychological (or other kind of) mystery -- which undermines itself a bit by pinning so much on the basic conceit. Karlsson has an agreeable narrative style, and structures his story quite well, but the personal perspective also makes for a limitation that leaves the novel(la) as a whole feeling a bit thin. (It's unsurprising to learn that The Circus is based on an earlier text of Karlsson's -- presumably a short(er) story.)
       The Circus is a decent little read, and a quite affecting portrait of a damaged soul, but not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2020

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The Circus: Reviews: Other books by Jonas Karlsson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Jonas Karlsson was born in 1971.

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