The Night Circus is an emporium of fantasies, illusions and magic. It arrives in town completely without warning, appearing one day on a field, and lies dormant till the sun sets. After that it throws its gates open to patrons and lets them experience its cornucopia of visual, auditory and gustatory delights, black and white, and breath-taking.
What none of these customers realises, though, is that the night circus is an elaborate construct – the venue for a running competition between the half-dead magician, Prospero, and his rival, the very mysterious Mr A. H. (so mysterious in fact, that we are never even told his real name). They wage this battle through proxies, in this case, Prospero’s magically gifted daughter Celia, and the orphan, Marco, whom Mr A adopts and trains.
The story is told alternately from their perspectives, with a third protagonist, Bailey, providing the non-magical counter point. Celia and Marco are destined to fight for magical supremacy, playing a game whose rules neither of them ever understands and whose resolution is unclear.
Although set in the late 19th and early 20th century, apart from a few nods to the dress or architecture of the time, the book does not specifically anchor itself to history – unlike other similar magical novels like Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell. Instead, it has a timeless quality to it.
Morgenstern is a magician of sorts too, weaving the most extravagent, fantastical word pictures and populating her world with intriguing characters. Each of these characters is elaborately portrayed – the beautiful tarot card reader; the ageless, Japanese contortionist; the unusually gifted red-haired twins; and even the dedicated, fascinated clock-maker.
We can practically see the shades of Celia’s dress, hear the sparks and hiss of the opening fireworks and taste the brilliantly described chocolate mice and caramel popcorn. The lush, luxurious train that the circus travels in overwhelms the senses, as do the descriptions of many of the tents within the circus or the intricate details of the clock built by Herr Thiessen.
Surprisingly then, for someone who manages to stun and inspire so much from her setting of scene, the three main protagonists come across as somewhat flat and affectless. We are told that Marco and Celia have fallen passionately in love with each other, but the spark of that passion never successfully flies off the page. Similarly, Bailey comes across as a reasonably ordinary young man, so we never fully understand what makes him the chosen one, and what binds him so inextricably with the circus.
My other criticism of this novel would be the anti-climactic ending. After building up the competition and tension over the course of the story, it’s almost as though the author suddenly got impatient for a resolution of some kind.
That said, The Night Circus is still a fantastical, magical, deeply imaginative debut novel, and well worth reading just for the beautifully developed prose.
Maya always has three books going at the same time - a different book for every mood. She loves exploring new authors, but every now and then she sinks back into the comfort of old favourites like murder mysteries and Regency romances. A corporate butterfly, Maya lives and works in Bangalore, India.
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