The cover of The Night Circus sold me immediately, as do many cleverly designed covers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another book about a circus. Most of them seem to focus on the nineteenth or early twentieth century, so the period theme had me doubly wary. But I kept looking back at the pinstriped circus held aloft by a tattooed paper arm, and I decided to give the book a chance. Still, I worried that the black and white design and the emphasis on night meant that this could be a circus of glittery vampires and codependant teenagers, but the flourishes around the title and the shockingly pink tent flags had me thinking that the book might be girly in a cool way. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern turned out to be none of those things. This novel is as carefully constructed as its origami cover and is every bit as delicate.
The Night Circus is a magical story in several senses. The very publishing of it is one of the fairy tales so many aspiring writers dream of. This is Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, it has received critical acclaim, and it has been optioned for a movie. Morgenstern’s success is deserved on all counts. The story is visually striking, and the intricacies of overlapping plots provides a sense of depth not found in other recent circus tales. And oddly enough, the book telegraphs all of its moves through a series of excerpts from a regular column written by one of the characters, Friederick Thiessen.
“The whole of Le Cirque de Reves is formed by a series of circles. Perhaps it is a tribute to the origin of the word ‘circus,’ deriving from the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring. . . . Rather than a single tent with rings enclosed within, this circus contains clusters of tents like pyramids, some large and others quite small. They are set within circular paths, set within a circular fence. Looping and continuous.”
The interweaving character arcs serve up plenty of surprising developments, but the workings and stylings of magic are what drive the story. The two main characters are trained magicians bound to each other in a contest to the death, and the interactions between them begin to play a role in the shape and structure of the circus itself.
As if that weren’t enough, both of them are raised by sadistic men who have been competing with each other for a very long time. Celia, the girl illusionist doesn’t receive an education from a kind, Dumbledore-type mentor or even attend school. Her education involves outright violence from her father. He breaks her hands and slashes her skin open just so she can learn to use her mental powers to put herself back together again.
And while the boy doesn’t suffer abuse of that sort, he is subjected to manipulation and neglect that rivals the girl’s physical punishment. Among the infrequent visits and moments of actual instruction, the boy’s mentor gets to provide a number of cryptic remarks similar to the following: “‘Names are not of nearly as much import as people like to suppose,’ the man in the grey suit says. . . . ‘If you find yourself in need of a name at any point, you may choose one for yourself.’” The boy chooses Marco, and like his name, his magic is one of his own making, of glyphs, runes, and charms.
The psychological backgrounds would make any romance between Celia and Marco explosive, but the magics shared between them make their story into something far more volatile. The surrounding characters and the circus itself are pulled along, but as the novel develops it’s nice to see that their relationship (or fight to the death) is yet another part of a larger tale.
My only hesitation with the book is that the chapters seem a little short at times. They are carefully crafted vignettes, but I found myself wanting more at several points when the focus shifts. But I imagine that others might find this arrangement very pleasing. The Night Circus is written very well, and any lover of magic should by a ticket for admission. As the book says, the gates open at dusk.