Le Cirque des Rêves, the spellbinding centre of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, is a strange kind of circus. Travelling the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it arrives in town with no warning or fanfare, and seems to disappear without a trace. The imposing gates open only after nightfall and close before dawn. During the day, a sign warns that “trespassers will be exsanguinated.”
Inside is a labyrinth of black-and-white striped tents, each filled with a different wonder. An illusionist turns books into ravens and scarves into doves; a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a glass box; a pair of flame-haired children coax their kittens into performing elaborate tumbling acts; a garden of ice grows and blooms into an intricate forest; wooden animals seem to come to life as they gallop around and around on a carousel. Everything is black and white.
Against this backdrop, Celia, the illusionist, and Marco, the proprietor’s assistant, have been pitted against each other in a seemingly endless competition that neither one of them quite understands. From childhood, they have been trained in telekinetic and psychic powers by stern guardians who have created this contest presumably for no other reason than their own sense of power. It’s a ruthless game, and only one contestant can survive. And naturally, it becomes even more complicated when they fall consuming, irrevocably in love.
The novel is filled with rich, immersive images and beautiful descriptions. Floor-sweeping gowns that change colour, a bonfire that glows pure white, and the illusion of a ship made out of books floating in an ocean of ink demonstrate Morgenstern’s wonderful imaginative skill. At its most engaging, the narration shifts into second person, inviting the reader to truly experience the enchantment of the circus: “Finally you reach another curtain. Fabric that feels as soft as velvet beneath your hands parts easily when you touch it. The light on the other side is blinding.”
Admittedly, this is far from a literary masterpiece. The plot often meanders, and never quite reaches the intensity it promises. The lush, lyrical descriptions seem to come at the expense of deeper character development, and at times shift into vague statements like “the air itself is magical.” The illusions that occur at the circus are gorgeous, but occasionally a little too cutesy – a pool of tears where sorrows can be tossed like pebbles, for example.
While Morgenstern does shy away from opportunities to use the circus as a more unsettling, transgressive space – this is certainly not Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus – there is always the hint of its potential for darkness. Interestingly, the most raw and authentic moments occur outside of the circus itself. When Celia is a child, for example, her father repeatedly slices the tips of her fingers so that she can practice healing them with her mind. On one occasion, he smashes her wrist with a paperweight. These moments are filled with real tension that elevates the story above the merely cute and whimsical.
For some readers, The Night Circus might feel a bit lacking in grit, but although it may be a little frothy at times, it’s a delicious kind of froth. This is a novel that truly immerses you in its colour and flavour, and the experience is undeniably enchantin