‘Simultaneously gentle and dark’ – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Here at Bookmunch Towers, we’re a tad late getting to The Night Circus. Part fairy-tale, part love-story, Morgenstern’s first novel has been the talk of the literary town for a while now – and as is the case with many of the Most Anticipated Debuts Of The Year, blah blah, I found myself thinking, yeah, save it. But with this one, I kind of get the hype. It’s a captivating story, beautifully told and beautifully presented (I know that black page-tips on hardbacks are getting passé, but they’re still fancy to me).

Celia Bowen is the student and illegitimate daughter of Prospero the Enchanter (aka Hector Bowen), a real-life magician, and Marco Alasdair is the protégé of Alexander H, Hector’s one-time teacher and now rival. The two magicians bind their underlings to a life-or-death contest of enchantment and stamina, a game that’s played out in the most amazing of all stages – Le Cirques des Rêves, or, the Night Circus. And, of course, it doesn’t go to plan, because Celia and Marco, mid-game, fall in love. The novel spins out their story alongside those of the circus co-founders, the other performers (Marco’s fortune-telling girlfriend, Isobel, was one I especially liked), the other-worldly twins, Poppet and Widget, born on the Circus’s first Opening Night, and, trailing them all in a parallel narrative, Bailey Clarke, a young boy as captivated by Le Cirque des Rêves as any of Morgenstern’s readers.

The Night Circus manages to be simultaneously gentle – the beautiful intricacies and wonders of the circus life are described with love and joy – and dark, as Celia and Marco’s trials grow more arduous and the full scope of their challenge is revealed to them. So while it’s mostly a reassuring read, with the imaginative flights of the circus design and the characters’ illusions and tricks, and Morgenstern’s sensuous descriptions of everything from caramel to curtains, there’s enough of an edge to keep the less patient reader enthralled. In that respect it reminded me (perhaps oddly) of some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books – Pratchett’s humour and Morgenstern’s gorgeous fantasies are both offset by a rather creepy darkness. I’m thinking the Discworld Tooth Fairy here. Otherwise, The Night Circus brought to mind a more sanitised Angela Carter, or a less scary Kelly Link, or a less historical/political Susanna Clarke. After all, the magician double-act isn’t far off Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But Morgenstern’s work is a warmer tale than Clarke’s; the love-story, Bailey’s wonderment, the in-between-chapter descriptive passages guiding us through the circus tents – all of it outdoes the darkness, I think, so that despite the fear and tension that does run through the text, my lasting impression will be of a captivating, enduring world.

Any criticisms? Not really. Bailey’s sections could have been a little less drawn-out, and a bit more of Poppet and Widget wouldn’t have gone astray – at times their perambulations weren’t much more than a tour-guide for Bailey/the reader, so more action might have been nice. Overall, the novel was a tiny bit too slow-moving for me, and I do generally prefer something with a little more bite, but that’s just personal preference; it’s not to say that Morganstern’s done anything wrong. This is a novel as beautifully wrought as any one of the magical creations within its pages; it’s well-balanced and carefully ordered, and my off-the-cuff adjustments might well set the whole thing out of whack. So I’d say that any flaws I’ve found are minor scratches that could easily be ignored.

Any Cop?: If you’re looking for dark magic, Morgenstern’s hints (the binding, the end-game) probably won’t be enough for you – this is a book that suggests, rather than provides, fear. But if you want a mesmerising, sumptuous read with a liberal handful of honest-to-goodness wizardry, just wait for dusk then step right up.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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