By Erin Morgenstern. Published in 2011.
Emily Dickinson described books in general as frigates, “to take us Lands away,” but in my experience, only the special ones actually accomplish that. Those are my favorites, transporting you to another place, sometimes foreign or alien or fantastic, sometimes a near mirror of home, but definitely elsewhere. The details conjure smells and sights and sounds with enough resonance to give your imagination material to fill in the rest, and the characters seem to continue living outside the pages. The depth and breadth of the setting invites you to linger longer than the plot does, and past and future extend beyond the story’s boundaries.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, is one of those rare frigates, so immersive that reading it is like jumping into a cool, clear pond and discovering you can breathe underwater. An elegant grown-up fairy tale, suffused with magical and ahistorical period color, it spins its love story with delicacy and ever-increasing warmth, but the real accomplishment is the setting, the circus for which the novel is named. So evocative, so beautifully and ardently rendered, the spellbinding circus is a wonder to visit.
The traveling circus, Les Cirque des Rêves, is the stage for a mysterious, years-long competition of sorts between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who were bound to the duel as children. Celia’s father, a brash stage magician called Prospero, and Marco’s guardian, the shadowy Mr. A. H—, have feuded for decades, centuries, perhaps longer, but Celia and Marco do not share their enmity or their combative nature. To their guardians’ mutual frustration, the circus becomes not a gladiatorial arena but an exhibition of ingenious enchantments. But as it grows more elaborate, drawing an ever larger and more passionate audience, the circus also becomes more unwieldy and fragile, and Celia and Marco must uncover the destiny laid out for them so they can try to escape it.
That summary of the premise makes the novel sound more plot-driven than it actually is. The Night Circus is much more interested in setting a mood and creating a world than in hammering out some kind of fantasy-thriller. For starters, though magic is ever-present, it’s not showy, abracadabra, wand-wielding flash. Morgenstern takes an enigmatic approach, often describing effects rather than causes, implying rather than spelling out. Magic is mysterious, even to those who control it, and in one of the book’s most beautiful touches, it becomes a medium of art.
That’s what makes the magic-infused circus so lovely: it’s a collaborative work of art created by Celia and Marco and a host of other players, some of whom know something of the venue’s true nature but most of whom don’t. Rather than provide one big descriptive dump of the place, Morgenstern continually provides new little details about the place—the confections served, the costumes of the living statues, the bottled stories tucked away in a corner. It’s a tremendously rewarding approach, both reinforcing the idea that Le Cirque des Rêves always has more to discover, more to explore, and constantly adding greater scope and richer color to the vision in the reader’s head.
Sliding back and forth in time, making particularly good use of foreshadowing, The Night Circus generates suspense by toying with the idea of destiny. Destiny is, of course, a fairy tale mainstay, but although Morgenstern draws on myth (particularly the tale of Merlin), she doesn’t retell it indiscriminately. In this way, The Night Circus is both old-fashioned and contemporary in its sensibility. Celia and Marco make a beguilingly affecting pair of star-crossed lovers, struggling to move the stars, and several of the other characters make the most of their turns in the episodic novel’s spotlight.
But more than any of the characters, more than the meticulously crafted story, I loved the setting—that beautiful, starlit circus with its black-and-white tents and enchanted clockwork and gracefully dazzling performers. Slipping into that world invariably filled me with keenly mixed emotions: happy delight in being there and childlike sadness in knowing that it wasn’t real.