I wasn’t really into circuses when I was growing up. I can’t remember ever going to one – something about the combination of animals being made to perform weird feats, creepy looking clowns and too many sweaty, loud people in one small space didn’t appeal to the quiet, odd bookworm kid that I was and so I never even asked to go when they came to town. As I got older I showed some interest in the new generation of circuses ala Cirque du Solei, but due to finances enjoyed it only on television, and I also grew to love old carnivals as portrayed in shows like Carnivàle, but alas these don’t really exist any more. However, if the Le Cirque des Rêves (the magical circus that is at the heart of The Night Circus) did exist I would gladly be amongst its loyal followers, the Rêveurs.
The Night Circus is one of those rare books where the setting has been developed into a vivid character in its own right, one to be loved or hated; one to fear or one to fear for; one to follow until the very end of the story, whatever that may hold. Because of the way the story progressed my feelings for the circus changed, just as they would with a complicated protagonist but throughout our tumultuous relationship I never lost my sense of wonder at what lay beyond its gates and I doubt that I would if I could actually walk its grounds.
The Night Circus begins long before Le Cirque des Rêves’ conception, in New York, 1873 when Prospero the Enchanter (or Hector Bowen when he’s off stage) receives an unexpected visitor – a child called Celia who is in fact his daughter left by her mother for him to raise. It becomes apparent quite quickly that Celia possesses magic just like her father, for though he pretends to be simply an illusionist on stage he in fact performs real magical acts masquerading as parlour magic. Early on in his paternal and mentoring relationship with Celia (which is at times cruel and often cold and emotionless) an old rival who he addresses as Alexander, pays him a visit and upon seeing the child’s abilities the two strike up a mysterious wager. Alexander (also known as Mr A.H- and “the man in the gray suit” throughout the book) then goes about choosing his own protegé by scouring orphanages and testing potential children. His choice is a young boy who is uncertain why he has been adopted by the mysterious stranger who barely speaks to him and instructs him to choose a name for himself. The boy names himself Marco Alisdair and begins a long apprenticeship with his master which mainly consists of travel and reading, a far cry from Celia’s demanding and increasingly violent training under her father.
It is not until the two children reach adulthood that the circus is dreamed up, seemingly by theatrical producer and eccentric Chandresh Christophe Lefevre who takes Marco as an assistant once he’s of work age. Chandresh, who is fond of lavish and unusual events, invites a collection of friends and acquaintances to a midnight dinner to discuss his idea for a unique circus and enlist their skills to make it a reality. His guests are an ex Prima Ballerina and fashion designer Mme. Padva, who will design the intricate costumes worn by the performers; period fashionistas Tara and Lainie Burgess, who will design details of the circus such as the material of the tents and general atmosphere; architect and engineer Ethan W. Barris who will take care of the circus’ structural elements; and the mysterious Mr A.H- who appears to have little impact on the circus’ creation but whose true involvement is revealed as the story unfolds. The concept is simple but innovative: a circus which appears at its destination without warning; only opens at sunset and closes when the sun rises; is decked out in a colour scheme of black and white rather than the usual bright circus colours; and which will feature acts never seen or scarcely imagined before. This circus will be called Le Cirque des Rêves – The Circus of Dreams.
As the circus is constructed and the performers hired (starting with the alluring tattooed contortionist, Tsukiko) the true purpose of it becomes clear – it is arena in which the protegés of Prospero and Mr A.H- will play “the game”, the mysterious event that their training has been leading to. Neither Celia or Marco know what “the game” is meant to consist of, the outcome they are playing toward or initially who their opponent is, but they have both been told (albeit in a rather cryptic manner) that the circus is the setting and that they must both showcase their skills. Celia performs for Chandresh and his associates and is promptly hired as Le Cirque des Rêves’ Illusionist, but in doing so attracts the attention of Marco who recognises that her magic is no illusion and thus she must be his opponent. Marco is unable to conceive a reason for him to travel with the circus and so enlists his lover Isobel Martin to work as the circus’ Tarot reader and spy on Miss Bowen for him.
Thus begins a mystical back and forth between the magicians akin to a grand game of chess, in which they take turns in creating wondrous feats of imagination to showcase at the circus. In one move a tent of origami animals that fly around the tent including a paper dragon that breathes fire; in the next a beautiful forest where every detail is crafted out of delicate ice crystals. On and on the opponents try to out-do each other and along the way create a circus of mythical proportions which attracts crowds of wide-eyed visitors every night. When one devoted circus-goer by the name of Herr Fredrick Thiessen (who also helped create the circus by designing and making the extravagant clock that stands at its gates) begins to write about his treasured experiences at Le Cirque des Rêves he receives correspondence from other like-minded individuals around the world and The Rêveurs are born, a group of Le Cirque des Rêves devotees who distinguish themselves but wearing the circus’ palette of black and white with one accessory of bright scarlet, such as a scarf of handkerchief.
Unbeknownst to the circus folk and their loyal Rêveurs, the artisans of the circus, Celia and Marco are not creating the wonders for them, and as time has gone by they are no longer making them as moves of “the game” – they are creating for each other. Along the way Celia has also discovered the identity of her opponent and while the two of them should be competing, they can not fight the attraction between them and soon the exhibits transform from pieces on a chess board to secret tokens of love. But the lovers are unaware of the insidious intricacies of “the game” and how entwined everyone involved in Le Cirque des Rêves has become. No longer is the circus simply a magical wonderland where they can create to their heart’s content, there are countless lives at stake and one day “the game” will come to its deadly conclusion.
The Night Circus is a stunning creation on a very grand scale and I can barely fathom that it’s a debut novel. Every moment of it was an absolute delight, even the scenes that were heartbreaking. Even though the subject matter is in the realms of fantasy there is some themes that carry on into the realm of reality: how every war has innocent victims; the duality of life; natural talent (as shown in Celia) versus learnt skills (as shown by Marco); and of course the tried and true star-crossed lovers archetype (although it is told quite uniquely here). It also is a very sound historical novel, leading us from 1873 to 1903 and through England, America, Germany, France, Vienna, Spain and other steps in between with beautifully described fashions, buildings and social occasions and fabulous dialogue. Each character is crafted to perfection, especially the main ones, and they elicit an emotional response and connection very early on. But the real triumph of this novel is Morgenstern’s explosive, expansive, breathtaking imagination. The fact that she could come up with even one or two of the features of the circus is impressive enough, but the novel is fit to bursting with so many wonders, each one more magical than the one before it. I found myself gasping aloud at many moments as well as crying at some (I’m a sap!) and constantly longing that the circus was real. Plus it has the most stunning cover art, both inside and out and you know how I’m a sucker for a pretty cover 🙂
In researching this book online I have seen it being compared to Harry Potter and Twilight which I think is frankly ridiculous, but I guess that is because there has been a lot of hype and when you think literary hype those two series come to mind. If I was to compare it to anything it would be the movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as they both involve a dangerous wager and a travelling troupe which offers a unique and magical experience, but beyond that I have never encountered anything quite like it. I have kept my synopsis brief (…ish) because there is so much in this story and so much that can be spoilt, so if I have piqued your interest, just go read it – it is truly amazing.
Also when I was researching I found that there is a game online where you can explore the circus (kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story) and I will certainly have a play there as it’s as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing Le Cirque des Rêves….besides reading it again ;P Oh! AND I also found that there has been some buzz about a movie being made!! Apparently it is in development by Summit Entertainment and according to IMDb its due to be released next year – I hope they do it justice.
I give The Night Circus By Erin Morgenstern: