My first and only experience with the circus happened when I was roughly seven years old, and I stayed long enough to watch six kids ride the back of an elephant, eat some popcorn and something caramel from one of the many dozen vendors, and ride a flamboyantly dressed horse which I found out later was actually a pony. What I remember most is the arrival of the circus in my quiet town, when a blue, yellow, and red striped tent had ascended into the sky. I love that part most of all. When reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I was reminded of this and more. I expected a lot from this book probably due to my own experience, but as I read further, I was left wanting more.
The Night Circus bounces between the stories of Celia Bowen, Marco Alisdair, young Bailey, and an assortment of intrinsic circus characters. When the magnificent, ostentatious Prospero the Enchanter receives a visitor in a grey suit named Mr. A.H., a stoic man of few words, Prospero suggests a game. Reluctant at first, Mr. A.H. agrees to the terms. Prospero and Mr. A.H. groom their pupils, Celia Bowen [Prospero’s biological daughter] and Marco Alisdair [an orphan found on the streets] so that their pupils will one day battle to the death. This game, as you expect, isn’t as trite as Mortal Kombat or fought through brute strength. It’s a competition of endurance and strategies. Over the next decade, the arena Le Cirque des Rêves is underway for the two magician apprentices to fulfill their part in their teachers’ game. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Things change when the opponents, destined to kill each other, fall in love.
With a strong and gripping start, Morgenstern drops the story into our laps wasting no time in introducing the plot. Once the magical lessons have ended however, the story’s momentum comes to a halt. Morgenstern then gives us a series of character introductions—and a series of time jumps that are insensibly up to the point when the timelines converge, which doesn’t happen till the very end. Otherwise, the patron’s house London, the tents in Le Cirque des Rêves, and the farmhouse in Connecticut are just pieces to an unassembled puzzle that you patiently have to wait for to make sense. No clues are provided. Part of the story’s glamor resides in its conceptualization of the bold black and white circus. Morgenstern treats us as one of the guest visiting Le Cirque des Rêves, which I especially found entertaining. While it’s a spectacular show with several preshows before the main event, by time the main event occurs, you’re tired and freezing and ready to go home.
Morgenstern’s protagonists—while occupy most of the story and our attention—mystify us, but they’re people we never learn about it. Morgenstern spends pages introducing these two people but abruptly stops as though the ambiance of the circus and swoon of side character are more relevant. Marco and Celia have to contend with teachers who’d make better inquisitors than teachers. Considering the protagonists’ rough upbringing, the protagonists remarkably grow up into well-adjusted adults; Marco can seduce any women it seems, which he acquired cooped up in isolation whilst reading grimoires (as any player does). Once Celia and Macro learn about the other being a magician/opponent and start to see each other romantically (all of sudden I might add), Morgenstern chooses finally to focus on the protagonists’ stories: two people intensely attracted to each other and find themselves in the worst predicament. And to me, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they’re in love. The intensity between them cuts as sharp as a butter knife, making it hard to believe how far each one is willing to go for the other.
Several of the other characters make fleeting appearances. Morgenstern delivers a collection of ostensible short stories in regards to the supporting characters, opening the window before curtly shutting it, hinting we’ll learn there’s more to the contortionist Tsukiko, the clock builder Herr Thieson, or even the fortune teller Isobel Martin. With such a wide spectrum of characters and the time spent mentioning them, Morgenstern pulls us away and back to the protagonists’ stories. I can’t help but feel that the significance of having these others characters exist at all is to explain the circus as an enigma. I could accept this if the story hadn’t spent the time in delving into these other characters’ lives, letting them make their own choices, implying that this is a character-driven story, and then suddenly taking the rug out from underneath them [and us] like a cruel joke. The plot is inserted awkwardly making for a jarring reading experience.
The imaginative descriptions and attention to details brazenly dictate the magical world we find ourselves in. I can still see the intricate clock propped in the middle of Le Cirque des Rêves, the Victorian bourgeois costumes that I wished I had, and the fanatics wearing their red scarves. Morgenstern masterfully builds a world with layers that we’d love to explore all night. She imagines this story by taking the ordinary and subverting it, and we feel like we’ve entered into a secret society. Morgenstern best writes when she’s describing things hidden and ambiguous: at night, in secret compartments, or in mazes. Although the symbols loosely tie into the themes of the story, Morgenstern is not a novice at weaving a myriad of images that elevate the deeper meanings of entrapment and a caste system.
The time spent at Le Cirque des Rêves regales with its guests of its refined aesthetics and whimsical nuances. On the next trip, guests might want to consider skipping some shows. Some tents conceal more interesting things than others.
Rating: 3.6 out of 5