Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
The Night Circus is a first novel, but despite this it is remarkably assured and with an admirable constancy of both vision and execution. Set around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, it deals with a contest between two magicians; Marco, an orphan who studied magic from books and lectures, and Celia, an innate magician who learns from harsh experience. Their battleground is the Cirque du Reve, a black and white themed circus that only opens its gates at night and houses a mix of traditional and magical performances and displays. The prose is delicate, almost tenderly written, and inhabits a realm somewhere between magical realism and fantasy that fits the subject matter beautifully.
The story itself is a love story. The two magicians are, in a sense, married from childhood and their attempts to compete in the duel that has been ordained for them always end up enchanting the other. The circus which plays host to their mutual seduction is beautifully described. Whereas with other book along similar themes and with similar tones, I’m thinking primarily of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell here, as well as some of Neil Gaimans work, the enchantment and dreamlike quality of the prose becomes infected; a worm is introduced, the magic has a dark side, or the dream becomes nightmare, in The Night Circus the beauty and dreamlike quality never leaves. Morgenstern keeps throwing in new enchantments, new wonders, and never feels the need to corrupt her creation. This is refreshing in a time when everything must be multiple and have its flipside, here complexity never destroys delicacy and the novel is all the better for it.
The time frame for the novel I found particularly interesting. The circus is set up in the dying years of the 19th century, what is frequently referred to as the fin de siecle, and the action tips over into the early twentieth century. Frequently for fictions set in or about this period, this is a cue for a laboured metaphor of the dawn of mechanisation and science, a period of disenchantment that leads inevitably to the first world war. Morgenstern serves up something different. The dawn of a new century is indeed a tipping point, and in a way some of the magic of the C19th is lost, but here the dream continues, changed no doubt, but continue it does thanks to a constant desire for that sense of wonder and spectacle that is instantly conjured by the late Victorian carnivalesque.
I’m making no bones about this. I loved this novel. Be it because of my affinity for the circus, the period, or for a certain type of fantastical writing, it sucked me in and I found myself not wanting to leave its world. This is something that hasn’t properly happened to this somewhat jaded and over-analytical reader for quite some time, and I welcome the return of that feeling.