Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, is mesmerizing. It is imaginative and sentimental but she avoids overdoing it. Vivid, even when describing the monochromatic circus itself, The Night Circus somehow manages to feel complete and satisfying even while it maintains an aura of mystery.
Celia and Marco have each been trained in ancient magical arts but by two very different teachers. Unfortunately for these two, their teachers each feel they have a point to prove and pit the two students against each other to determine whose methods of instruction are superior. Giving their pupils only a small amount of information and a venue, they’re left to their own devices. And with a little help from creative investors, the two spend years creating, expanding, and perfecting their battleground, Le Cirque de Rêves.
Inspiring the adoration and devotion of many attendees, Le Cirque de Rêves appears and disappears with little rhyme or reason to those outside but thoroughly enchants all. Morgenstern’s descriptions of the mysterious circus are a treat for readers who thirst for vibrant accounts of the spectacles offered and have the ability to internally translate these to images. It’s amazing how appealing the black, white, and shades of grey color scheme established for the circus becomes. Though it might induce a questioning frown and scrunched eyebrows on first reading the troupe’s plan, the reader quickly loses him/herself in the possibilities and allure of the monochromatic world. Somehow, Morgenstern captured all the magic of Oz while using the color palate of Kansas.
The narrative itself jumps around in time, telling the story from several different angles. There are brief descriptions of the different tents at the circus, all addressed to the reader directly through an effective second person narration. There are also excerpts from the writings of Herr Thiessen, the clockmaker whose elaborate timepiece marks the time for patrons. Herr Thiessen begins writing about his experiences and publishing them shortly after his first proper visit to the circus and he establishes a following of like-minded patrons. Referring to themselves as rêveurs, they walk the same line as the reader. Balancing between spectator and participant, both the reader and the rêveurs have an intimate knowledge of the circus (the reader through the story told and the rêveurs through their devotion and frequent attendance), but are also observers. Neither can affect the workings of the circus but they can almost see the manipulations as they sit back, watch, and enjoy.
I was not bothered by the way the narrative jumps around but there are some who would. I loved the slow spiraling in towards the novel’s climax. It’s approached from within the circus by following Celia and Marco and from without in Bailey’s appearances, perfectly balanced between the two. So much of the novel is about balance, the matching of perfect opposites, black and white, like yin and yang. What begins as a game with unspecified rules shifts into a beautifully balanced dance, but with much higher stakes. I don’t know whether Erin Morgenstern has any plans for further novels, but I hope she does. I also know that the rights have been optioned for a movie. Done right, it could be visually stunning and amazing. But any attempt to capture the novel on screen will mean losing some of the magic, so I’m undecided as far as whether I support an adaptation or not.