My friend Dennis said of parades, “Parades are like theatre. Fleeting, exhausting, thrilling, and fabulous.” I can absolutely say the same thing of Erin Morgenstern’s debut, The Night Circus. Quietly yet exquisitely written, it tells the story of the mysterious Cirque du Reves and the lives that are intricately bound to and forever changed by it. Marco and Celia’s story of love, magic, and cruel fate is at the center of the book, but each character and each subplot is as fully realized and beautiful as Marco’s ice garden or Celia’s tree of light. Caught up in a unbreakable game started years before without their consent, Marco, Celia, and the rest of the exotic cast create a fleeting, thrilling, fabulous, and, at times, exhausting tale of forces beyond our understanding or control.
I realize that the above paragraph may sound shmaltzy, like the advance copy given to retailers and publicists before a book’s publication, but I believe every word I just wrote. And I don’t want to write too much about the plot more lest I give too much away. Part of the joys of this book is the revelations, both striking and subtle, and the way they unfold throughout the story. A hint or peek here, a heartbreaking plunge there, the story is written in the creation and structure of the circus itself, and it is a stunning literary feat. It reminds me a bit of Itamar Moses’ play, Bach at Leipzig, written in the form of a Bach fugue, but Morgernstern’s prose and structure are unique in their quietness and stillness. An all-encompassing atmosphere envelopes the book, tying all the strands together in this fairy-tale world, and the stillness is both comforting and unsettling.
This is not to say that to book moves slowly by any means. Some may find it a bit slow to get started, but for me, the beginning was my entry period where I became acquainted with the setting and characters before I decided to fully launch myself into the book. This is the kind of book that you lose yourself in in every sense. I wanted to read it constantly, to spend more time in the beauties of the Victorian London night or to continue exploring every nook and cranny of the Circus’s mysteriously multiplying tents. Yet I also didn’t want to read it, loathe for the book to end and with it my own existence in its world. Every time I closed the book, elements of the story and the world clung to me, little whisps of magic calling me back. It was always at the back…or front of my mind.
The thing about it, though, is the realism within the magic. What makes this different from say, Harry Potter, is while the world is just as magical and wonderful as Harry’s, the magic is rooted in realism, in practicality, in enchantment. There are no spells, no wands, no special schools. The magic seems real and every day, as if I, too, could train and become an enchantress, and yet these characters are unquestionably special. And that the magic is so human is deceptive, as well, as ultimately the ethics of engaging in such a dangerous, unknowable, and ultimately uncontrollable activity becomes central to the story.
My one issue is that as a reader, I had consciously pay attention to the date designations at the beginning of each chapter. The story is not told linearly, and if I did not note the date, three of the younger (though most important) characters, Bailey, Poppet, and Widget, did not grow and age in my head as they do in the book. But it was minor a minor and did not distract from my reading of the book. And though it’s been two books since I visited The Night Circus, I still find myself wanting to go back, to curl up inside and wrap myself in the twinkling lights, the smell of the cinnamon and caramel apples, and the magnificent visions of acrobats, contortionists, the enchantress, and Poppet and Widget’s kittens. As much as I wish I were Celia or even Poppet, I know I am Bailey, the outsider who is constantly drawn to the circus, who makes friends and discoveries at the circus, and who hopes that one day, he will be invited officially in.
I was a child who fully believed in the possibilities of magic, and I am an adult who still does. As I read, I found myself yearning to create beauty with the flick of my wrist or, even more simply, changing my hair color by thinking hard. (The things we do to get the job.) But though magic as we know it may or may not be accessible to us, the magic of an intricately and beautifully crafted book certainly is. I hesitate as I write this because part of me doesn’t want to share. I want to keep this book, this story, these characters, this world for myself. But I know that your experience with The Night Circus may be very different than mine, as each character’s experience with La Cirque du Reves is individual and personal. And I have to, am compelled to admit, I haven’t been this totally and unabashedly in love with a book in a long, long time.