Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a bit like the circus described in its pages; mysterious, haunting, tantalizing, and a bit dizzying. The novel traces the course of an ever-escalating competition between two magicians that plays out over more than a decade. The two magicians are bound into the battle at very young ages by their respective teachers, with no choice and very little knowledge on the matter.
The two young recruits are Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, and each receives a grueling and sometimes painful education in magic — also called enchanting or manipulation throughout the novel. The novel begins in February of 1873, and proceeds more or less up to the present. It does not proceed in a linear fashion, however. Each chapter jumps from place to place and year to year; the shifts around the globe and back and forth in time left me constantly flipping back to check the headers on previous chapters, trying to orient myself in the story. It was an intriguing way to tell the story, but it did get confusing at times, trying to remember whether what had already transpired in the story had in fact already happened in the particular moment you were reading, or was still to come in the novel’s timeline.
Regardless of the time jumps, the story pulls you in very early on, and refuses to release you. Morgenstern weaves in small second-person vignettes, painting a vivid picture for the reader about what a visit to Le Cirque des Reves (French for “The Circus of Dreams”) would entail. She describes sights, sounds, and smells, pulling the reader in as surely as the characters of the book find themselves drawn into the fabulous nocturnal circus. The second-person narration was slightly off-putting at first, but I warmed to it as the book progressed.
The aforementioned magicians’ competition is the major focus of the novel, though several other storylines tie into the main plot. It’s somewhat tough as the reader to know more about the game, its rules, and its foregone conclusion than the hapless protagonists, but I found myself rooting for Celia and Marco nonetheless. You can’t help but love Celia. I have a very clear mental image of a beautiful brunette in a black and white ball gown, turning books into doves, bottling memories, and creating a Wishing Tree that truly does grant the wishes of those who light candles on its branches. I was not so immediately taken with Marco, but he proves to be an alluring character as well. There are a host of other exciting figures as well, especially those belonging to the circus that acts as the staging ground for the competition between Celia and Marco. There are acrobats, artists, psychics, and wild animal trainers. And of course, there are the reveurs, the loyalest patrons of the Night Circus. They come from around the world, from all walks of life; there is no one who cannot be one of the steadfast dreamers who frequent the circus, sometimes even following it across oceans to bask in its mysterious delight.
Morgenstern has a true talent for description, especially when in comes to setting a scene or illuminating a character. I often felt as though the prose was saturated in colors, especially when she described the many parties thrown to create and then celebrate the circus. It is to her credit as well that the details never bog down the writing; they are woven in artfully, and never seem to slow the pace of the action. Morgenstern’s talent is front and center as she describes and illustrates the enchanting — and enchanted — additions that Marco and Celia add to the circus over the years. From the Cloud Maze to the Ice Garden, I felt that I could see the brilliant contents of the black-and-white tents in all of their glory. It may sound odd (though I imagine my fellow book fiends will understand), but I really hope The Night Circus doesn’t get adapted into a movie. I just know they’ll ruin all of my mental images.
If I had one problem with the novel other than the chronology, it is the lack of resolution at the end. Without mentioning specifics, I felt slightly cheated in terms of a conclusion. There is some meta-literary action here, which is an interesting twist, but I feel is used somewhat as an excuse to leave the story in motion rather than give the readers a clear-cut ending. I can respect an author that leaves things up to the imagination, but I suppose I have been spoiled by the tendency to expect a full report on how everything ends up for the characters. It did not dampen my liking of the novel by much, but I wanted very strongly to know more about the fates of the two main characters.
I highly recommend this book, and encourage readers to give themselves over to the magic realism that Morgenstern brings to life. It’s a strange, sometimes confusing journey, but most definitely one that readers will enjoy.