It’s purely by chance that I’m reviewing yet another book about magic (see The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I don’t have a particular interest in magic – far from it. In fact I feel rather like the reviewer of The Night Circus (2011) in the Guardian who, being ‘resistant to historical fiction … hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical’, might have been expected to hate it, only to find it enchanting. Because I enjoyed it too.
Set in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, The Night Circus is about the competition between two magicians to establish which of their magical techniques is superior. Their rivalry is of long standing, and takes the form of periodic ‘challenges’ in which their students compete. This time one of the magicians, Henry Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter), pits his young daughter Celia against Marco, an orphan chosen and trained by the other magician, known only as Alexander, or Mr A. H-. Celia and Marco know there is a game, but do not initially know that they are competitors, or how the outcome will be decided. The venue for the game is to be a production organised by a wealthy theatrical entrepreneur, Chandresh Lefèvre, and that production is the Night Circus – sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.
The circus simply appears in various far-flung locations. It is open from dusk to dawn. It contains some apparently conventional circus acts, such as a contortionist, trapeze artists (who work without a net) and a fortune teller, but there aren’t any clowns and very few performing animals. Instead, there things like a hall of mirrors, an ice garden, a wishing tree and a cloud maze. Patrons have a ‘magical’ experience, in the sense of amazing or wondrous, but don’t understand the foundation of the circus as magical in the paranormal sense. ‘People see what they wish to see. And in most cases what they are told they see.’ For the two competitors, it is an opportunity to showcase their magical skills. This is ‘actual magic disguised as stage illusion.’ But is there a price to be paid for mixing magic and reality? Who will pay it?
The basic story of the magical challenge is augmented by the stories of other characters who are either creators of some of the non-magical aspects of the circus, such as the clock maker, Friedrick Thiessen, performers like Isobel the fortune teller, and lovers of the circus like Bailey, a young American drawn into its ambit. All have a part to play, but the use of magic may or may not work out well for them. Magic has ramifications. As Celia notes, the game is about ‘how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed is a world that does not believe in such things.’
The story, which is told in the present tense, jumps backwards and forwards in time, though only over a limited period. I’m not sure why Morgenstern has chosen to do this; possibly to add to the sense that the circus lies outside normal time. She is perhaps reinforcing through narrative form the idea that though magic can’t reverse time, it can make it be experienced differently. There are also short sections throughout that describe the experience of the circus, as if addressing a member of audience, as in ‘You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers.’ This is intended to give the reader a sense of involvement, but also has a structural purpose made clear at the end.
Some reviewers (here’s one, anyway) have found the story slight and overly sentimental, and the characters, though suitable to their part in the story, not particularly memorable. I found it helped to think of it as a romance, with obstacles to be overcome, and somewhat set parts for the main characters. Certainly it is not a drama asking profound questions. So what did I like about it? I liked the circus. It is a beautifully imagined alternative reality, there for the reader to explore in a very visual way. And the book does raise interesting considerations about the relation between competition and collaboration, collusion and manipulation, fate and freedom. In the words of the Guardian reviewer who liked it (see above), The Night Circus ‘poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former for the sustenance of the latter.’ It’s not at all like any other book about magic I’ve ever read.
This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. She’s also, perhaps not surprisingly, a visual artist. You can read more about her here. A film of the book is said to be ‘under development’.