The circus is all fun and games, right?
Publisher: Harvill Seeker (Random House)
First Published: 13th September 2011
Date Reviewed: 17th April 2012
Almost every night a circus appears in an undisclosed location, staying there for a short while before moving on. To the patrons it’s spectacular but still a circus with tricks. Yet for those who work for it, especially a select few, it’s more than your average magic box, being a stage for some truly amazing spells and illusions, and one particular thread of illusions in particular.
The Night Circus is a fantastic fantasy-orientated novel that lures you in unknowingly. What is most important to discern, in many ways, is that while the promise of supernatural events seems evident from the first page, from, indeed, the cover of the book, it does take a while to really show its colours. For a good length of time, although there is magic there, true magic, it does not infiltrate the circus as much as you might have thought. In many ways the circus appears to be too realistic to warrant the supposed magic and sometimes the story does not appear to be heading anywhere. But when you reach the end of the book, you can’t help but wonder if that was part of the magic in itself. The supernatural element of the book becomes very important and becomes the book’s sole reason for being towards the end.
The story is told from the third-person points of view of a number of characters. The tense usage is present which adds to the mystery. On some occasions Morgenstern brings the reader into the story, addressing them directly, and describing the circus in the second person. It’s rather like listening to a meditation instructor, the words and the overall picture being one that you don’t want to walk away from, even if at times it seems incredibly regular. While the passages about the reader obviously symbolise the present day, the chapters from the characters’ points of view are written about various difference times, jumping back and forth between the late 19th century and early 20th.
And at first all that jumping seems silly and needlessly confusing, but like the circus managers who want the audience to be able to see the performances from every angle, so Morgenstern wants to tell her story through everyone, wanting to provide the back story and future story as well as numerous “present” stories. Of course this means that for a long time it gives the impression that Morgenstern is just describing her concept, that there isn’t actually a real plot and that the book is character led – but that is where the long ending comes into play, suddenly bringing all the different threads together, explaining everything you hadn’t thought to query, and sweeping you up into a magical realism written to perfection.
Whilst one can point to two main characters in this book, there are very few characters that would be considered secondary. Each person plays a specific role, roles that often only become apparent much later. And whilst you may feel you do not know the characters well, for Morgenstern spends little time detailing their general personalities, you find that actually, you know more than you thought. And you find that the characters probably know more about you than you know about them.
The magic and paranormal elements are of two kinds; the first of the kind that people often dream is real (illusions, controlling things with the mind), and the second, which is more to do with telling the future and with premonitions. Being that the second kind is quite widely accepted, that Morgenstern employs the less realistic, so woven into the first, actually succeeds in making the illusions and manipulations a real possibility in the world.
With a book so tied up in magic and fantasy, a romantic thread comes as no surprise. The way Morgenstern writes, her use of phrases, and the way the romance blends with the fantasy, makes for a new fairytale. Both epic and regular, the romance thread heightens the overall atmosphere and adds much to the plot.
Yet the book is dark. A dark fairytale more suited to huntsmen told to kill and having to turn into sea spray upon losing the prince, than fairy godmothers and kingdom-waking kisses. It is both very modern and very traditional, and it is clear from the detail that Morgenstern knows her subject very well. When the reader is sitting there in wonder, basking in the magic going on, Morgenstern takes a knife and tears it apart, showing that where there is skill, there is also abuse. That where there seems to be freedom, there is slavery.
It is difficult to talk of a book like The Night Circus in a way that does it justice without revealing everything; such is the way the story opens up to the reader. This review could never hope to truly present it convincingly unless the writer of it were able to conjure doves from paper, Ice Gardens that never melt, and never-ending mazes.
So let those three pictures be the conclusion. The Night Circus may stay around for a while, but no one knows when it will disappear, or when it will return. In order to visit you must go when it arrives and not hesitate. Thus it is the same with this book. A book is in the spotlight for a time, and then fades. Do not let this one be forgotten.
April 19, 2012, 2:42 pm
Excellent review! I admit I didn’t love this book, but am well aware that I am in the vast minority! I think the ending really bothered me, and the whole romance seemed… I dunno. It just didn’t work for me, I guess. But I think the movie visualization will be really fun to see!
Charlie: I can see how it could be less liked, it’s very different, including the ending, and I know I dithered for a while during some parts. The ending was almost open-ended, which is awesome but it does leave you questioning (again, I wondered if that was the point, as it invites discussion). A movie version would be wonderful if done well!
May 2, 2012, 1:44 pm
I liked this book but I didn’t love it. At times it felt to me like it was a series of creative writing exercises that shared a theme and was cobbled together to make it into a cohesive books.
I did think it was clever the way that the two different stories converged together. Maybe that was my issue – trying too hard to be too clever!
Charlie: I can see where you’re coming from with the writing exercises, at times I thought the plot had been put in the background in order to describe the regular happenings of the circus. And while that meant you could relax with the book, it wasn’t too positive a sign for the remainder of it. It was good when the plot picked up again.
Yes, I liked the two stories blending as well. It was somewhat predictable as soon as it was introduced by Bailey’s visit to Isobel, but the ending was a surprise.