Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I bought this some time ago, but have put it off due to the comment of the staff member who sold me the book. I happened to have bought it at the same time as Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and the person behind the counter complimented me on the choice of such a great pair of books. Having hated Lively’s work, I feared that The Night Circus would be similar, so I put off reading it for a few months, not least while I focused my fiction reading on with The Forsyte Saga.

I must say from the start that while I do agree with the maxim ‘never judge a book by its cover’ I am often prejudiced by a cover as to whether or not to buy a given volume. It might be the name of the author, the title or the design which entice me, but having not heard of Morgenstern or the book to any great extent, it was the cover design that made it pass from bookshop shelf to my shelf.

The opening passage of the book seems to have escaped from the subconscious mind and couldn’t help but be written. In a marvelous introduction, Morgenstern ignites the flames of the imagination with the concept of this circus that appears out of nowhere and which only opens at night.

From here, though, we suddenly go off on an apparent tangent. We are taken to the mid-late 19th century and an illusionist who goes by the stage name, Prospero. Only he is not an illusionist as such. You see, The Night Circus verges into the realm of magical realism. Prospero does “real” magic and tours theatres putting on a show whereby he performs his magic, but tries to make it seem as though it is an elaborate illusion, the converse to his fellow performers who put on shows of illusion, but try to pass it off as magic.

It is no great spoiler to say that Prospero is soon introduced to a daughter he never knew he had. And so the story really begins for The Night Circus is her story. Names are an odd thing in this book, for while they are used it is made clear that are often little more than labels which may or may not be someone’s real name. So we begin to get to know Celia Bowen, our protagonist. Yet does not every protagonist also have an antagonist? Well, in this black and white fiction there is, and we are introduced to our antagonist by the mysterious man in grey.

Between the man in grey (who I must say reminded me somewhat of the early glimpses of the man in black from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) and Prospero, a contest is agreed. But they will not be the ones to compete; rather it is their protégés. Celia is Prospero’s, but the man in grey has none, though this is soon fixed with Marco, who is to become the aforementioned antagonist.

Around this point I began to feel as though I had been duped. After the grand opening, where was the circus? This was turning into a narrative of two young people, Celia and Marco, being trained in magic by their respective mentors. I know a friend of mine who started reading it said she gave up after it finding it boring. I wonder if it was around this stage that she did so. But rest assured, the circus does re-emerge and does form centre stage (quite literally) for the remainder of the book. For it is this contest, of which we know little other than that the two competitors are bound to each other in it, which gives rise to the circus as the arena in which the contest is to take place.

But this is no battle. We do not know the rules, but it is not any kind of a one off fight. It is ongoing over many years. Indeed, the years that go by give rise to probably my greatest gripe about the book, in that Morgenstern has fallen into the modern fad of using a nonlinear timeline. Admittedly, it is not as annoying as others that I’ve read, but I do tend to take an instant dislike to authors who think it makes them a clever writer, rather than make them a nuisance to their readers.

As the story jumps back and forth through the late 19th century, on to the early 20th and then back again, we meet a number of other characters along the way who play their part in the circus. There is the grand clockmaker, whose work is altered by Celia, using her magic to improve things here and there. There is Bailey, a young farm hand who has a chance encounter with the circus one day and who develops something of an obsession with it.

Morgenstern presents us with an idealised circus. It struck up in me thoughts that I recall always wanting to go to a travelling circus when it came into town, but never being allowed to, as my parents didn’t like the idea. So as a child, I never went. In a way, I’m glad, because the wonder that it promised would always be greater than that which we probably find upon entering the big top. So what Morgenstern gives us is the near-perfect circus, with acts that are more spectacular than any we’ve ever seen, with sweets that are sweeter than any that really exist, with nights more memorable than any we really remember.

All this brought back to mind what I thought was possibly an influence on the writing. The vivid descriptions of the illusionists in full flow made me think of the great ball scene from The Master and Margarita with Prospero in the role of a less malevolent version of Woland.

The bulk of the novel gives us insights into the life of the circus and the interplays between the various characters, though daren’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. Though one may rightly guess that the contest comes to an end, but how it does so is up to you to find out.

Morgenstern’s writing style is eminently accessible, which makes it a fairly quick read for a book of nigh on 500 pages. If anything, I felt that reading it over the summer was the wrong time of year to do it. It has a more autumnal feel to it. So given the time that this review is being posted, then I would certainly recommend it as a book for now, particularly if you are in need of a bit of gentle escapism.

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