Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin review – friends, high flyers and fallout | Fiction in translation

Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin review – friends, high flyers and fallout | Fiction in translation

Elisa Shua Dusapin’s third novel, first published in French in 2020, is a quiet, meditative story of shared endeavour. Though gentle, its emotional complexity means it is Dusapin’s most accomplished work yet. Ironically, its gentleness also makes it a forceful riposte to the individualism and competitiveness that can dominate social and working life. And with its international cast and narrative of cooperation, it is particularly resonant in this moment of proliferating geopolitical conflict.

Vladivostok Circus is narrated by Nathalie, a costume designer fresh from university in Belgium, who is working in her first job for a trio of circus performers preparing a dangerous bar routine. Nathalie arrives at the circus venue in Vladivostok at the end of the season, where she takes up residence with the performers – Anna, the “flyer”, who is Ukrainian; Nino and Anton, the “bases”, German and Russian respectively. There is also the group’s Quebecois director, Leon, and his rescue cat, Buck. During the late autumn off-season this motley crew navigate differences of class, culture and age that cause friction but also open avenues for fruitful collaboration.

Nathalie’s first-person narrative meanders introspectively. She reflects on her conversations with the others and initially frets about “rambling” or sounding “pretentious” as she shares stories and ideas. She is a nervous talker, reflecting after a drink that “I can’t handle alcohol. I’m afraid of what I might say”, before “launching into” a lengthy and eccentric personal anecdote. Nathalie’s awkwardness is thoughtfully rendered and gives a sense of authenticity to the novel’s depiction of the fragile formation of a group dynamic. She and the reader piece together information about the others in stages, and sometimes assumptions are confounded. Through Nathalie’s intuitions, apprehensions and honest mistakes, socially and in her work, an affecting portrayal of the challenges and joys of properly and sensitively engaging with new and unfamiliar people emerges.

Nathalie isn’t the only one adjusting to the group dynamic. Anna is relatively new, too, having recently replaced the trio’s longtime flyer, Igor, who was seriously injured in an accident. Anton and Nino are still dealing with the emotional toll and public fallout of this incident and the question of whether Anton, twice Nino’s age, should retire. Leon is also in turmoil, having recently split with his partner, a tightrope walker who introduced him to the circus. Nathalie, too, has recently broken up with her boyfriend and is preoccupied by her lack of relationship with her father. These histories are shared in stages, as the group become close.

Dusapin deftly conveys the way intimacy and routine are established, physical space shared, and how moments of creativity and connection occur. There are repeated scenes where the two very different women observe each other’s bodies in their shared bathroom, sensing each other’s insecurities (Anna worries about her weight, Nathalie about her psoriasis). Solidarity builds incrementally in these scenes, and later, when the bar breaks and Anton carelessly notes that Igor was a lighter flyer than Anna, Nathalie’s reflections are poignant: “Leon, Nino and I all glance at Anna. She avoids our gaze, a tight smile on her lips. I feel like giving her a hug.” Later still, Anna shares her moisturiser with Nathalie, rubbing it on her sore skin, one of several small gestures that aggregate over the course of the narrative. Bodily traces of the group and their closeness eventually filter into Nathalie’s designs, too. As she works one evening, she reflects: “The room is full of their smell. Anton’s is reminiscent of old wood in a cellar, Nino’s smells of berries, with a sour tang of cigarette smoke, Anna’s of moisturiser … Anna, a comet, an asteroid, stardust. Black hole.”

The circus is rich with metaphorical possibility and Dusapin embraces this without leaning too heavily on it. The notoriously difficult Russian bar routine relies on complete trust between the trio, and this extends to Nathalie and Leon – everyone’s role is valued. The circus is also unique in the way it combines artistry, performance and athletic prowess, and the novel meaningfully explores connections between these skills. Ultimately, the importance of the setting is crystalised in Nathalie’s reflection that “in the circus, you become attached, whatever happens”. Vladivostok Circus is about people trying to work and create together and the solidarity and friendship that shared endeavour can foster.

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Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, is published by Daunt (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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