Fiction, Corsair £7.99

The Invisible Circus, By Jennifer Egan

The author of 'A Visit From the Goon Squad' began her career with this
wonderful coming-of-age story about the curative power of young love

As one of many readers who were captivated by Jennifer Egan's last book, the
Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, I went scurrying back to her
earlier novels, hungry for more. Fellow Goon fans won't be disappointed: 1995's
The Invisible Circus, which has been re-released following this surge of
interest in the American author, is just as insightful, taut, compelling and
well written. It is, frankly, hard to believe it is a debut novel.

We're in San Francisco in 1978, with a lop-sided family. First, Phoebe's father died; a tragedy which sent her older sister, Faith – always the show-off, performing with reckless abandon to entertain her doting dad – further down a self-destructive path, and pursuing Sixties' radicalism to its most dangerously experimental extremes. Faith mysteriously killed herself while travelling in Italy; eight years later, 18-year-old Phoebe, haunted by her sister's death, decides to retrace her journey to find out what really happened.

The Invisible Circus is less formally inventive or clever-clever than Goon Squad, but it offers a superb in-depth exploration of the emotional lives of its characters. This stealthily mounts as you read – and you will want to gobble the novel down – until at the end there's a catharsis, and a feeling of having also been on a long journey. The emotional residue lingers in the mind. Yet, despite being so affecting, Egan rarely strays into sentimentality. (And with all those dead relatives and fragile young girls, it could so easily have been cloying.)

As also demonstrated in both Goon Squad and 2001's Look at Me, Egan can create a believable teenager. Phoebe suffers a recognisable feeling of invisibility, of arriving at the party too late (a sensation established with concrete literalism in the opening scene in which, thanks to a misprinted poster, she shows up to a music festival that's already finished). Trying to fit in with her peers feels like "mouthing the words to a song she'd never been taught, always a beat late". So Phoebe's journey round Europe is as much a journey to find herself as it is to find Faith, even though Egan's spry writing – and perhaps, in part, her own panicky experiences as a young backpacker – mean that it is rare for The Invisible Circus to feel steeped in "coming of age" cliché.

Where it does sometimes brush with cliché, or at least overstatement, is in her characters' obsessions with those departed loved ones. When Faith lies on a rooftop, looking up at the sky, she does not need to articulate "Maybe Dad can see us". It's the same with Phoebe's fixation with Faith: yes, Egan must demonstrate the all-consuming impact the death of this vivid girl has had on her younger sibling. But we get it early on, and it continues to be spelt out unnecessarily.

The novel is surprisingly suspenseful. Part two sees the timid Phoebe get into various nasty scrapes on her travels, and these provide crunchily tense interludes in what is otherwise a slightly listless mope around the Continent. In the most astonishing of these, Phoebe drops an acid tab in Paris and careers around the city attempting, literally, to break on through to the other side by smashing her head into a glass window. This is exhilarating writing, vivid and patterned without straying into embarrassing drugginess; as the trip develops, Egan's prose hurtles further down the rabbit hole, sentences extending into a stream of (very expanded) consciousness.

In part three, a chance meeting with someone who knew Faith sheds light on Phoebe's hunch that there was more to her suicide than met the eye. But this encounter also ends up powerfully shaping Phoebe herself.

Cue the romance. I couldn't possibly reveal the object of affection, but guess what? Egan's good on the sexy stuff, too. Phoebe's lack of comprehension during the early, physical stages of falling in love is captured with an adorable, ever so lightly knowing touch that catapults the reader back to those mysterious first-time feelings: "a curious malady had afflicted her, sensitizing every cell in her body to the point of agony"; "Phoebe battled a froth of nervous laughter that seemed continually on the verge of overflowing"; "she felt that shock of longing, like a heavy object plunging into deep water".

In the consummation of this burgeoning desire, there is – finally! – an expulsion of Faith, and an instance of self-realisation for Phoebe: "she would live a life. Until this moment she had never truly believed it." Summarised thus, and examined coldly, such a plot turn sounds unpalatable: Phoebe finds herself by sleeping with someone? Yet, with blazing honesty, Egan's prose conveys how a love affair can have a violent intensity, and gives full due to what a self-expanding experience sexual exploration can be. As a result, this section chimes truthfully and – like much of the novel – thoroughly seduces the reader, too.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game