The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
In 1886 a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Reves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire. There are contortionists, performing cats, carousels and illusionists – all the trappings of an ordinary circus. But this is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the reveurs – the dreamers. And who is the sinister man in the grey suit who watches over it all? Behind the scenes a dangerous game is being played out by two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who, at the behest of their masters, are forced to test the very limits of the imagination – and of love.
The Night Circus feels like the kind of novel I’ve been waiting a very long time for. With the wonderful words of praise from author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife), already featured on the beautiful cover, it is certainly hard to ignore. However, Erin Morgenstern isn’t the next Niffenegger, she is a writer entirely of her own making, who has created a world so imaginative, so creative, and so real that all you want to do is jump into its very pages and become a part of the story she has so elegantly weaved together.
The story centres around two young illusionists Celia and Marco, who have been bound to a challenge by the very people who brought them up and taught them everything they know. However, the premise of the challenge and the identity of the other’s opponent has not been revealed to them. Both Celia and Marco are drawn to the circus of dreams and become connected to it in ways cannot even fathom. The slow process of discovering that they are in fact each other’s opponent in a challenge that has been mapped out for them since their childhood is a slow and painful discovery, and one that could destroy the love they have come to feel for one another. Neither know what it will take to end the challenge, and neither know if their love for each other and the circus can survive.
I cannot fault Morgenstern for her beautiful descriptions and language used to bring the Cirque des Reves to life. It is the kind of place you would have dreamt of in your childhood, where everything is possible and nothing is impossible. The circus consists simply of a group of black and white tents that open only at night. The circus comes and goes as it pleases, travelling from country to country, and does so without a single person noticing. Each tent, from the Ice Gardento the Cloud Maze, is unique and full of unimaginable concepts that change people’s lives, and the way they see the very world around them. Many of these people have become reveurs, or ‘dreamers’, and frequently follow the circus around the world just to get another taste of its magic. There are some really lovely little details in this novel, the reveurs being one of them. I just adored the idea of people almost becoming addicted to this world of magic and in doing so have created a secret society for those who love the circus more than anything in the world.
It’s fair to say that the circus feels almost like a character of its own, but there are many other characters who have roles to play. The first characters we come across are Hector, or Prospero the Enchanter as he is known on stage, and also Alexander, Hector’s opponent. It is not clear exactly when or how these characters met, but that over the course of their very long lives, they have challenged each other by choosing a pupil they can teach magic to and then put them against each other later in life, at a particular venue of their choosing. For their latest challenge the opponents are Celia and Marco. Celia is Hector’s newly-discovered daughter, and Marco is a boy that Alexander plucked out of school after discovering his potential. And so begins the long years of training and teaching towards a challenge that neither Celia nor Marco know anything about.
Neither Hector nor Alexander are particularly nice characters, and I would have liked it if their backgrounds were explored more in the story, to bring the whole thing together. Needless to say, they were both very intriguing characters.
The other character that really held interest for me, was young Bailey, who’s viewpoint we get every few chapters or so. His grandmother wants him to go to Harvard, and his father wants him to stay and run the family farm. However, Bailey wants to do neither of these things and wants the opportunity to choose his own path. The circus captivates Bailey from the very first time he sees it, and slowly over the course of the story, it becomes obvious that Bailey has much more of a role to play than he could ever imagine, and that the circus is the opportunity he has been waiting for. It was great to have an outsider become a part of the circus and get an outsider’s viewpoint. Bailey was actually one of my favourite parts of the whole novel.
As much as I adored this novel and Morgenstern’s imagination, it isn’t perfect, which I have to admit I almost expected it to be after reading all the wonderful reviews of The Night Circus so far. This is a very slow novel. The language is beautiful and the characters are intriguing enough to make you want to keep reading, but it is a very slow meandering plot that takes a while to pick up its pace. I think half the reason for this is the inclusion of very short chapters that switch back forth to different dates and different places and characters, and they are so short that I didn’t feel like I could really immerse myself into this world as fully as I wanted to. I kept having to go back and forth between chapters to compare dates and check I was on the right path, and it did become a bit of a nuisance, and took some of the enjoyment out of the novel. My other gripe is that I felt more time could have been spent on the characters rather than the circus. Yes, the circus is wonderful and magical, but the endless descriptions of it meant less time focused on the characters, leaving them lacking a bit of depth. I didn’t connect with them as well as I felt I should have.
Needless to say these are very small gripes and I still loved this novel. If you love beautiful language and imaginative stories then this is one for you. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I wholeheartedly cannot wait to see what Erin Morgenstern will write next. She certainly has a lot to live up to now! It pains me that I cannot give it the five out of five stars I wanted to give it, but I have to go with my instinct here and mark it down for the reasons explained above.
The Night Circus will be published on 15th September by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Random House. Thanks goes to the publisher and Waterstone’s for providing me with a proof copy!
- The Night Circus’s dazzling, high-wire debut (guardian.co.uk)
- Erin Morgenstern talks about THE NIGHT CIRCUS (omnivoracious.com)
- Early Review: Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (csilibrarian.wordpress.com)
- Review: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern (witchoftheatregoing.wordpress.com)