“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
So begins the only novel that has ever made me to want to run off and join the circus.
But then the dazzlingly beautiful, dream-like circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams), conjured up by first time novelist Erin Morgenstern, a feast of black and white colour schemes, rooms of ice and cloud, lingering with the seductive smells of chocolate and caramel, warmed cider and steaming cocoa, populated by illusionists and fortune tellers, acrobats and human statues so still it is as they have turned to stone, is no ordinary circus.
Dreamed up by mysterious theatrical entrepreneur Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre and coterie of friends and acquaintances at one of his sumptuous multi-course Midnight Dinners, this is a circus crafted by mortal earthly hands such as those of master clock maker, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, who becomes the first and most notable of its many fans or Reveurs, and those of more magical inclination such as Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, trained by their father and guardian respectively since childhood to compete in a battle royale of supernatural ability.
Le Cirque des Rêves, which opens at nightfall and shutters its seemingly endless maze of exquisitely-rendered tents at dawn, a world removed from the far more mundane one outside the fence its attendees all know, is not simply there to beguile and entertain the masses; it exists primarily as the venue for Marco and Celia’s slow burning contest across the decades, the latest bizarre undertaking of wills and ego by old adversaries of a sort, Prospero the Enchanter aka Hector Bowen (Celia’s father) and Mr A. H. aka “the man in the grey suit” (Marco’s guardian).
Well no one is quite sure beside Hector and Mr A. H., who go to such lengths to keep the competition a thing of mystery and half-explained premises that not even Celia and Marco are aware they are pitted against each other or what they must do to win until well into the story, which happily bounces between three time periods throughout the nineteenth century.
As a result, the book balances, much like its performers, on the cusp of the brick-and-mortar known, and the intangible, magical unknown, a daringly imaginative bringing together of shadows and light, nightmares and dreams, its ending a slow reveal of secrets big and small, of destinies uncovered, particularly for one country boy in Massachusetts who ends up more entwined with the circus than he could ever have imagined, in the most remarkable of ways.
The Night Circus, is above all, a thing of delicate mystery and beauty, a feast for the imagination as Morgenstern, a visual artist as well as writer – it accounts for the vividness of her descriptions which leap off the page with playful colour and verve – and a lesson in the darkest, most manipulative depths of the human spirit, and the power of love, real love, to triumph over such brutish behaviour.
It is impossible not be drawn into it and be immersed in the lush descriptions that seem to fill every page.
Even those with a boundless imagination would be hard pressed to match Morgenstern’s poetically rich descriptions of the circus which feel so real you are sure you can reach out and touch the things she refers to or walk through the rooms she brings to life in mesmerising detail:
“As the light from the tree increases, it becomes so bright that Celia closes her eyes. The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright. When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarter-deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean. Only the ship is made of books, its sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink. Tiny lights hang across the sky, like tightly packed stars bright as sun.” (P. 332)
The driving momentum for The Night Circus is not so much its narrative, which moves along in slow, back-and-forth increments until close to the end which it assumes an urgency of sorts, but the sheer life and vitality of the circus itself.
It is a character completely unto itself, not simply a venue in which Marco and Celia grudgingly play out the contest brought into being by their often heartless guardians until they feel they can do it no more, but a living, breathing, vision of a world so manifestly exotic, so alive with possibility and wonder, colour and beauty, that leaving it behind at the end of the book is a thing of great and enduring regret.
Morgenstern’s great gift as a writer is not simply her strikingly beautiful, magical, immersive worlds but the way in which she uses them to play out with rich, vibrant humanity, base emotions and motivations as old as the serpent and Adam and Eve, and far more heavenly feelings and thoughts that, no surprise here, triumph over the darker elements at work throughout.
You are never less than utterly enthralled every step of the way with The Night Circus, a creation that feels both as fragile and delicate as the rooms of the circus itself, and robustly substantial, a story that speaks to humanity’s tenacious ability to channel happiness and despair, love and dark desire in equal measure, eventually erring on the brighter, more alluring side of its capricious nature if given the chance.