The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breath-taking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway - a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love - a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
You have to ask yourself… Wouldn’t it be great to believe in magic?
I found this book extraordinary, with so much thought put into not only the story - which unfolds like a carefully constructed maze - but also into the presentation of the hardback edition, which fits perfectly within the spectacle of the story.
When reading the book I noticed that it often jumped back and forth between the years, from the time before the Circus was even so much as an idea in the characters' heads to a time when the Circus was an established sensation. This was at first be disconcerting and I found that I really had to pay close attention. The story itself centres around two characters, Celia and Marco, who as children are bound to a competition whose rules they are not told, nor are the consequences of made clear. The people that have thrust them into this competition are two highly skilled magic users, one of whom is Celia’s father Hector Bowen - who has decided his daughter is the ultimate competitor - and a man only known as Mr A. H.. They both have wildly different approaches to teaching magic to their respective students.
Around Celia and Marco we are given a cast of people who come into their lives and are changed by knowing them. These include Frederick Thiessen, who starts off as a maker of exquisite clocks before becoming more entwined with the Night Circus and its inhabitants. We never know how many people work and live within the circus or realise the extent of the magic that guides them.
For a debut novelist I believe Erin Morgenstern has made a very good first impression. The Night Circus is a strong story which has the tendency to drift into the unbelievable but when is it not nice to suspend disbelief and and fall into a story.
Michelle Herbert, 9/10
After I finish a book, but before writing my review, I give the strands of the web a quick tug and see what falls out, since there's no better way I've found to martial my own thoughts than having a glance at what others have said. With any book, the variety of opinions, and the sophistication of how those opinions are expressed can vary a great deal, as can the extent that I agree with them.
These days when looking at reviews, the norm seems to be a large number of unreservedly positive reviews balanced by a small number of viciously negative ones. However, the sheer variety of opinions on The Night Circus was a surprise in itself.
What was even more surprising, is that unlike with most books, I could actually understand where a lot of the opinions; both good and bad, were coming from, since looked at one way, The Night Circus is a thinly plotted, shallowly researched historical fantasy about superficially beautiful people enacting a cliché ridden romance. Looked at another way, The Night Circus is a gorgeously poetic and richly detailed fairy tale, in which magic is real, wonders and mysteries abound, and love actually does conquer all.
Down the centuries, the two magicians have been playing the game. The illusionist Hector Bowen; also known as Prospero the Enchanter, and his mysterious rival, the man in the grey suit who just calls himself A. H. have each chosen an apprentice to represent them, grooming the apprentices to participate in a duel of magic to prove which of the mentors' philosophies and teaching styles is superior.
Therefore when in 1873, Hector Bowen's five year old illegitimate daughter Celia walks into his dressing room, it is her enormous magical potential that he focuses on, seeing her as an excellent candidate for the next game.
After meeting Celia, A.H, realises he also needs an apprentice, so acquires an orphan boy and begins teaching him magic. The boy initially has no name, but chooses the name Marco Allister, and grows up to be a formidable magician in his own right.
Meanwhile theatrical impresario Chandresh Christophe Lefevre has a bold new idea. A travelling circus which will tour around the world, a place of magic and marvels, where a host of black and white tents contain acts that will boggle the imagination, acrobats who defy physics, a contortionist who can fold herself into a small glass box, and Celia, an illusionist who needs no wires or clockwork or items up her sleeves to perform her tricks.
With Marco as Chandrish's assistant, the stage is set. A duel of monumental power and complexity begins, with Marco and Celia manipulating the circus to create ever more fantastical attractions, wooden carousels with animals that move and breathe, a garden made entirely of ice, or a labyrinth of scintillating clouds.
As the two magicians become aware of each other's work however, rather than acting as rivals they begin to collaborate. Collaboration leads to familiarity, familiarity leads to recognition, and after a fated meeting with enchanted umbrellas outside a café in London, their feelings ignite Into love. Yet, the game can only have one victor and one outcome, and all the magic in the world might not be enough to save Marco, Celia, or the circus itself.
The first thing which almost all reviews will say about The Night Circus, is that the writing style is simply gorgeous! From the first sentence, written in an unusual second person, Morgenstern literally ushers you directly into the circus and lets you experience it for yourself, picking out so many little details, yet presenting all with a compelling rhythm and mastery of visual art which is far closer to poetry than prose. Indeed, like writers such as China Mieville, Mervin Peake or Angela Carter (with whom she's often compared), Morgenstern has an absolute gift for putting her reader directly in a specific place, so that you feel you've not just read about the circus, but visited it. The only complaints I have seen levelled at Morgenstern's writing style have been from those who find it a little too wordy, and it is true that if you don't like the idea of all twelve colours the circus bonfire turns being mentioned, this probably isn't the book for you. However, for anyone who loves language, especially language used to evoke visions of mystery and wonder, the writing style is nothing short of exquisite.
One rather odd aspect to the description which unsettled some readers, is the way that Morgenstern shuttles around in time, starting with a visit to the circus, then going back to show the circus's creation, from the glittering parties where the idea is discussed, to the machinations of the two magicians whose rivalry is at the heart of its creation. This gives the book's progression an oddly morphean quality which fits precisely with the mood and style here, this is after all Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams. Unfortunately, this is a minor problem for the book’s progression and the pacing of events, since it means a good half of the narrative is made up of flashbacks; albeit fantastically described flashbacks, which simply set up the book’s central location and premise rather than advancing the plot. Indeed, there is a contradiction in the fact that whilst we see very little that is actually new happen, this is because Morgenstern is so busy showing us new tents full of marvels or acts of magic.
Unfortunately, tension is an issue throughout the entire book, since even though the theme of the book is a contest, neither rules, nor judging nor any sort of comparative duelling come into play at all, and despite a few hints from Morgenstern that there is more to magic than it seems, things seemed remarkably easy going for much of the time. This made reading The Night Circus a rather odd experience, since rarely if ever did I feel any concern for the characters that compelled me to pick the book up or keep reading, but once I started reading and simply sat back and let the descriptions of the magic and colour and vibrancy of the world wash over me, I didn't exactly feel bored either.
The lack of tension doesn't just come from the pace of events being rather slow, but also from the lack of consequences. Morgenstern's magic seems to have few rules or strictures. Indeed, to say that Marco in particular apparently uses books, runes and other magical paraphernalia, all of the magic feels remarkably easy. Morgenstern hinted several times that there would be a cost, that there would be danger, and that matters weren't quite as easy as they seemed, however such costs almost never arose. In fairness, there were a few moments when unpleasant things did happen, however firstly all of those concerned the two elder magicians, and thus were heavily confined to only one plotline, and secondly, anything nasty was rather too quickly swept aside, indeed following the death of one rather beloved character, Celia moved on so swiftly she almost appeared callous.
This lack of tension also affected the book's background. Other than gorgeous ball gowns, finely made dinner suits and beautifully gaslit parties, the Victorian age outside the circus felt more like a stage set than anything else, with speech and even attitudes that were decidedly modern. Nobody for example ever objects to women taking part in the running of the circus, nor do we ever hear about anyone too poor to attend, or any performers from the circus risking starvation if they can't perform. Neither do we hear anything of the cooks, porters, backstage crew and other support people who do the unglamorous but necessary work of keeping the circus actually running. Indeed, even for a modern setting around any sort of performance art, the amiability of the circus performers and fans would be a little odd to say the least. This particularly bothered me with the Rêvers, a circus fan club spreading across Europe and America, in which everyone is quite content to visit the circus when it appears, and nobody is ever mentioned as unable to go due to poverty, illness, or heck even just life circumstances. If I were being cynical I might note that a world where ever beautiful artists and performers have infinite opportunity to perform their art, are eternally admired by peacefully pleasant and uncritical fans, and supported by support staff so magical that we never even see them goes beyond dreamlike, and into the realms of wish fulfilment fantasy. Where however this sort of shallowness and lack of thought would be a major problem for most authors, Morgenstern's style is just so good you end up completely razzle dazzled, and for the most part, don't worry about how easy everything is.
With character too, Morgenstern is most often concerned with appearance and artistic ability rather than depth and reality, with most characters being brought down to their talents or graceful presentation, indeed this is likely why we see rather more of Celia than Marco, since she is the stage illusionist, whilst Marco works from behind the scenes. Chandresh is theatrical, in all senses of the word, Herr Thiessenn, the clockmaker who builds the wonderfully described timepiece at the circus gates is memorable more for his love of the circus and his fantastic clockwork creations than for his personality, whilst we were literally told the two Scottish sisters Tara and Lainie Burgess were notable primarily for their good taste and loveliness. Yet, for the most part all of this doesn't matter as much, since having characters be just as they appear is hardly a problem when they appear so magnificently, quite apart from the fact that Morgenstern is one of the few writers I know who can actually make you empathise with a character’s sense of wonder at a thing the author has created, without making the characters appear too obviously the author's cheerleaders, though it would have been nice if those few characters who did have backstory to be explored, such as the coolly mysterious contortionist Tsukiko, had a little personality before this backstory came into play.
Some of her characters do however have a little more to them. One notable section featured Bailey, a young boy with a domineering sister who develops a love for the circus and a friendship with Poppet and Widget, the precognitive twins born on the circus' opening night, indeed in Baily's perspective, Morgenstern came close to actually portraying a contrast between the magic of the circus and the far less pleasant nature of everyday life, albeit she wasn't quite prepared to depict too much of the latter, and concentrated very much on the former.
Unfortunately, with her lack of tension, only the two mentor magicians actually provide even a hint of malevolence, and even they seem mostly impotent for a good part of the book. This was a particular issue with Isabell, the fortune teller whom Marco meets as a lonely young man, who remained so much the mystical fortune teller and later, happy friend of all, I was never entirely sure whether she was a rival for Marco's affections, or whether she passively agreed Marco and Celia should be together, or whether indeed Marco had feelings for her at all.
Marco and Celia's love affair too, is primarily surface based, with lots of kittens, rose petals and magic, albeit Morgenstern does also include a rather decorous scene of lovemaking into the bargain. On the one hand the speed this love develops, and the ease that Marco and Celia slip into it (complete with Japanese clichés about umbrellas), really doesn't up the stakes at all. On the other hand, a man who starts singing "If ever I would leave you" in an enthusiastic operatic tenor, whilst walking down the street carrying a bunch of roses for his wife is hardly in a position to criticise others for enjoying romantic gestures or being a bit too fervent about their feelings, and once again, Morgenstern's descriptive style comes to the rescue of her lack of emotional subtlety or characterisation.
Unfortunately, the book’s final climax was a bit of a fizzle, indeed whilst I enjoyed the discussion of the value of stories and the final position of The Night Circus, the fact that so many events, including the threatened explosive end to the contest finished with such ease, made the conclusion unsatisfying, at least from a dramatic point of view. Not that necessarily I wanted the book to have a tragic ending, but after all the hints about how dire the contest could be, the ease of the solution was quite anticlimactic.
All in all The Night Circus is one of the most unique books I've read. It resembles nothing less than a ballet, with an intensively visual style of art, a range of attractions, and a location which is as real as anything talked about in print can be. Unfortunately, a book is not a ballet, and where it would be crass when seeing The Nutcracker to wonder whether the cook who made Clara's sweets was fairly paid, or wonder whether Prince Siegfried of Swan Lake was a constitutional monarch, at the same time, for an eleven hour novel, even one as amazingly written as this, I can't help asking questions about what is actually going on backstage, and how the goings on stage affect the actors.
Particularly for me, the major problem was the question of cost, since despite a few hints and a literal magical contest, Morgenstern's work is very much a fantasy in the sense that actions do not have consequences and magic covers all.
In fairness, this did not bother my lady half as much as it bothers me, and judging by the many positive reviews the book has got, it doesn't bother others either. Still, for myself, beautiful and wondrous and amazing though Morgenstern's poetry is, the nuts and bolts of plot construction, character and above all, a world with actual consequences mean that I wasn't quite as enchanted as I might have been, which is why I consider the book as merely good, rather than exceptional.
Then again, there is no denying the book is good, And so I'd still highly recommend a visit to The Night Circus, after all, nothing here will hurt you, and many things will amaze and enchant you.
Dark, 8.4/10: The Marmite Circus
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