I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus. To visit the circus again, if only in their minds, when they are unable to attend it physically. I relay it through printed words on crumpled newsprint, words that they can read again and again, returning to the circus whenever they wish, regardless of time of day or physical location. Transporting them at will.
When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it? –Friedrick Thiessen (“Part V: Divination”)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, 2011. hardcover, 387 pages.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was unexpected. When raving reviews spoke to the debut novel’s imagination and Morgenstern’s ability to transport the reader inside it, I thought they were perhaps exaggerating. They were not. Morgenstern not only wants to introduce the Reader to Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), but have them experience it as well. I echo the sentiment that if you were to only read the novel for the sake of the circus (and costuming), it would still be worth the while.
Le Cirque des Rêves is a magical experience. Morgenstern would have the Reader understand how it would look and feel if the circus had suddenly and mysteriously appeared in a field nearby. Sprinkled throughout the novel are passages in 2nd-person narrative form. You are there at the circus, entering the gate, entering a tent, witnessing the wonder that is Le Cirque des Rêves. The passages also set a tone for the chapters that follow.
Much like the circus itself, the book is a circular and winding series of paths with chapters as performances the Reader encounters with no real ability to anticipate what comes next. The tone-setting passages, the partitions with ambient epigraphs, counterbalance a lack of segues*. The Night Circus is not for the impatient Reader. The enigmatic gives over to slow revelation, and Morgenstern moves in and out of multiple story-lines, overlapping characters’ narratives. Her use of tense is not to be underestimated. If you tend to be lazy about minding the locations and dates at the beginning of each chapter, good luck. Eventually, Morgenstern brings all the narratives together into a more singular point in time and place; impossibly, magically—just like the circus promises.
Morgenstern would invite the Reader to her circus full of incredible delights, working diligently to outstrip Dahl’s chocolate factory. But the circus, as we see it form and come to life, was not created for an audience, or even it’s grand cast of performers. The circus is merely an elaborate platform for a contest between two students of opposing masters. I say merely, but the Reader is as dumbfounded as the characters are. As the students, Celia and Marco, one-up each other and soon begin to woo each other with fantastical feats of illusion the circus is still unable to shed the idea that it must be something more. It provides a home to the performers, a family, and a ‘cult’ following forms and the circus brings hope and pleasure to every place it appears. Like the love forming between the competitors, the circus is for naught. Some people and things are expendable in a game where certain destruction is the only way the game can end. And how must it end?
“How long is this going to go on?” she asks (129)
Patience is required because even as Reader and characters find frustration in the obscurity of the rules of the game, there is much to do in the meantime. The circus builds wonder upon wonder and relationships need to deepen. The sinister does finally return to the foreground and as things begin to fall apart we can set about wondering once again how this could all possibly end. What does Bailey have to do with anything? To what possible future has Poppet been alluding? And what about Marco and Celia and their grand love? And what will become of the circus? I do not believe the ending will be met with displeasure. Morgenstern has thought these questions through; and by stories end, the Reader who has stuck with the novel will have learned to roll with the surprises.
The competition facilitates the existence of the circus. And yet there is little doubt Le Cirque des Rêves is a central character. It may be the only fully developed one of the lot. While veiling characters in mystery is often necessary for a dramatic and successful story, the danger is in exposing them as a device. We may understand how the character works, but we don’t care to witness an obvious tool. Isobel is a tool; she is never allowed to transcend this. (The same might could be said of Widget.) And why can’t Marco have loved Isobel? Does falling out of love with someone, or maturing and changing in a dating relationship where you felt love, but less of a love when met with the one make you less romantic a figure? (Weren’t they dating for quite some time?) Is it too complicated an idea? I worry that many of the relationships were too simple; maybe too juvenile in their rendering. I also questioned the consistency. I loved the men that “fathered” the students. They were marvelously horrid. And then A. H____ becomes quite talkative. It seems like he said more there at the end then throughout the whole of the novel. Do we forgive them since they provided us such a great experience, even though it is one born out of their callous manipulations? Are we going to see them again, is that it? “Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart” ~Publisher’s comments. I had a harder time “feasting” on the “heart.” The setting, the costuming, the translation of truly enchanting wonders/ideas are seductive; it is a strength unwilling to give over where a Reader’s participation (and patience) might do.
Few will have any problems being swept away by the romance between Marco and Celia in their Romeo&Juliet-like fervency: “a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands” (Publisher’s comments). However, it should be noted the romance takes a longer course; it does “flicker” and “warm” a while before being allowed to catch fire. The circus requires time, as does Bailey (whom with Poppet, for many, would unseat Marco & Celia). Morgenstern is very careful in her balancing and her pacing. I understand it intellectually, but I’m not sure I responded to it organically? At least not at first. The story does hit a stride and then begins to run headlong into a dynamic resolution. Afterward it quiets as the crowd dwindles and the sun begins to rise and it nears closing time. Favored characters are honored, another twist is unveiled, and the conversation on the magic that we can find in the everyday is had. Dreams are ignited for the Reader, possibilities, and a return is manufactured. Morgenstern would have you return, to come back and experience her Le Cirque des Rêves, as it was, and even how it could be. Le Cirque des Rêves has been grounded, and immortalized. Let the fan fiction begin.**
love the book covers. the first is the US cover, this is the UK’s.
* “lack of segues” is not a flaw. one of the beauties in the way the book is formed/written is in the way Morgenstern writes encapsulated scenes, complete moments within a chapter.
** what do you think about the twitter accounts of fictional characters?
The Night Circus is completely Teen friendly, even the sex scene is more poetic than explicit. I could totally envision a creative writing prompt inspired by the novel: to create a tent for Le Cirque des Rêves, in a 2nd-person narrative, and impress the readers, transport them, enthrall them.
Comparisons to Susanna Clarke and the way she lends credence to a reality filled with magical abilities/creatures are valid.
The repetition of the tree in image/form/use. The mythologies connected. There are lovely references to lore and literature, Arthurian and Norse and other. I , for one, was happy for to see a pet raven call Huginn (of Odin note). The novel would ground characterization and story in literature and age, rather than rely on pulp-ier works, or fall prey to categorization with said (latter) works. Did it work? I don’t know. I like the ambition though. I like it a lot.
The Night Circus is a great debut novel. I am excited to see what Erin Morgenstern might have for us next.