I have been resisting this book because it was always recommended in the same breath as Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ as in “if you loved Jonathan Strange, you’ll also like this”. Sadly, not really enjoying the earlier novel had put me off. I will now publicly admit that my attitude was wrong: ‘The Night Circus’ is, quite simply, fantastic.
‘The Night Circus’ is a novel about magic and circuses, about story-telling and imagination; like the best books, it enchants the reader as much as the characters within it. It is a quite remarkably accomplished debut, playing around with time periods and points of view, but never at the expense of clarity.
The main story begins with an obscure ‘gentlemen’s wager’ between two charismatic and mysterious men. One is ‘Prospero the Enchanter’, a stage magician whose illusions are just too good to be true, and who is intrigued at the prospect of educating his newly discovered daughter. There are hints that she may not be entirely malleable, ‘he makes several attempts to rename her [Miranda] … but she refuses to respond to anything but Celia’. The other man is unemotional and keeps to the shadows, but he does adopt a young orphan and starts his own training programme. Celia and Marco are being brought up as contestants in a mysterious game, the setting, stakes and rules of which will slowly emerge.
This may sound like standard fantasy fare (no pun intended) but Morgenstern elevates it though the world of ‘The Night Circus’, a liminal space where magic and reality intertwine. Although the conceit of a duel/game is dystopic, the ‘Night Circus’ is a space of love and joy. Ironically monochrome, designed to exist in black and white, it is in fact a place of heightened reality, a ‘Cirque des Rêves’ in which dreamers are protected from nightmares. As the game unfolds, cracks start to emerge, but the essential good-will is a beautiful counterbalance to the selfish cruelty of the ‘gentlemen’ and their bet.
It’s so hard to know how to start (let alone how to end) enumerating the novel’s charms. There is a wonderfully self-conscious fairy-tale element that won my heart when we’re told a young boy ‘reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself‘. It is thrilling to find a book that so gently and yet so confidently takes the best from magic and mythology without pretending that nostalgia is an excuse for stereotypes. On a similar note, I also had to bookmark the page when another character complains ‘I am tired of everything keeping their secrets so well that they get other people killed. We are all involved in your game, and it seems we are not … easily repaired’. Better phrased, but exactly the sentiment I have wanted to shout at so many fantasy characters (and authors) who seem to think keeping obscure secrets is more important than keeping people alive (and I’m including you in this rant, Dumbledore).
There we are, I love the structure, the themes, the characters and the message of this novel. To stop myself getting carried away I’m going to only mention one other detail that delighted me: within the main novel there are chapters devoted to creating the world of the circus. I don’t actually like circuses very much, but I could happily live in Morgestern’s literary creation. In fact, after returning this edition to the library I’m going to buy my own so that I can visit whenever I want. These chapters take you from the gates, down the paths, past the sights and into the most wonderful illusions. My current favourite is a tent that has a box of black pebbles outside it and contains within a single, deep pool of water, ‘a pond enclosed within a black stone wall that is surrounded by white gravel.
The air carries the salty tinge of the ocean.
You walk over to the end to look inside. The gravel crunches beneath your feet.
It is shallow, but it is glowing. A shimmering, shifting light cascades up through the surface of the water. A soft radiance, enough to illuminate the pool and the stones that sit at the bottom. Hundreds of stones, each identical to the one you hold in your hand. The light beneath filters through the spaces between the stones.
Reflections ripple around the room, making it appear as though the entire tent is underwater‘.
I won’t tell you what magic occurs, but it’s called ‘The Pool of Tears’ and when you leave the tent you feel lighter, released from your inner worries and troubles.
Read ‘The Night Circus’ if you loved ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, read this book if you hated ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. If you’ve never hear of ‘Jonathan Strange’, read ‘The Night Circus’ anyway. I have four years of not recommending this novel to make up for, and I’m starting here.