#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews VLADIVOSTOCK CIRCUS by Elisa Shua Dusapin

In my review for ELNet of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s first two books, Winter in Sokcho and The Pachinko Parlour, I described the author progressing these novels via ‘small misunderstandings … slight miscommunications, and … the small struggles to express ourselves we all experience as we make our attempts at living’. 

In Vladivostok Circus, elegantly translated, once again by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, Elisa Shua Dusapin employs a similar technique to the story of a circus act rehearsing in an empty venue in the Russian city of the title. The protagonist, Nathalie, who has just landed the job of designing the act’s costumes, arrives at the circus a day early, and the first costumes she designs – a mixture of Cats and ‘something solid, to symbolise Siberia and its forests’ – fail to inspire, so she has to start again. The performers, who are training for an unprecedented four consecutive triple jumps on the Russian bar, are, at first, also unsuccessful. The bar itself has to be replaced if they are to stand a chance of winning the winter’s circus competition in Ulan-Ude. 

The relationships between the characters are similarly fraught with tiffs and misunderstandings. The performers seem unhappy with each other. Nathalie finds the tumbler, Anna, cold and stand-offish, and her communication with Anton, the act’s lead, is limited, given they have no shared language. 

Yet, over the weeks they spend alone in the empty venue, still filled with the smell of the circus animals once held captive there, the characters form something of a family. Indeed, as the novel progresses, we come to understand that in many ways Vladivostok Circus is a meditation on family relationships. We learn that Anna has replaced Anton’s son Igor as tumbler, after Igor suffered a life-changing fall while performing on the Russian bar. We discover that the other performer, Nino, is the son of an important German circus family; and perhaps most crucially, there are hints that Nathalie’s decision to travel halfway across the world to take this relatively insignificant job is driven by some unresolved conflict with her father. 

Dropped throughout the text are short excerpts from a letter from Nathalie to her father, asking him, it seems, for some kind of rapprochement. But in what might now be called Dusapin’s signature style, we never discover whether daughter and father are reconciled, and the quasi-family formed over a few weeks in Vladivostok also dissolves: we promised we’d see each other again. In the end, we never did. In fact, the act doesn’t even perform in Ulan-Ude – prevented by what I’d like to dub a ‘Dusapinian’ triviality: the soundtrack recorded to accompany the act is incompatible with the venue’s sound system. 

So, we are left without resolution. And perhaps that is the point – because that is how family life is for most of us: full of false starts and loose ends, misunderstandings and minor conflicts, hope and effort; all of which might, or might not, add up to something. What is clear, however, is that Dusapin only goes from strength to strength. 

Reviewed by West Camel

VLADIVOSTOCK CIRCUS

by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Published by Daunt Books (2024)

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015 and is currently working for Orenda Books. He has written two novels, Attend and Fall. He is the editor of the Riveter magazine and the #RivetingReviews for the European Literature Network.

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