The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
Thus begins Erin Morgenstern’s sparkling debut novel The night circus. Charming. Enchanting. Magical. Just three of the words that have been used to describe it—all of them deserved. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two old adversaries representing different schools of magic challenge each other yet again for another of their contests to decide which of their teaching methods rules supreme. They are Hector Bowen, whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter (Morgenstern has a love of Shakespeare, having also taught the bard at high school), and the grey-suited A. H—, whose name (Alexander) is obscured because that’s the way he rolls. Hector nominates his daughter Celia, while AH selects an unnamed orphan boy, whom he gives the name Marco Alisdair. Celia and Marco are bound to the contest and each other. They grow up knowing they are destined for the mysterious contest, whose rules are shady at best. They spend their childhoods learning magic and waiting for the challenge to begin. But the contest needs an arena and it is decided that a particular type of circus will be it. Cue the theatrical impresario Chandresh, who creates the night circus, sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.
The game must be played out until there is a winner, and there can only be one winner, for the loser in these contests typically dies. So what happens if the two contestants fall in love?
The narrative is split into three strands. The first comprises short, second-person pieces that are interspersed between the main two strands, placing the reader into the action. You get to walk through the gates and enter the tents and taste the food and see the attractions. I’m not entirely sure whether this strand is necessary given the reality of the circus painted in the main strand—that of the contest between Celia and Marco. The third strand focusses on a young boy named Bailey, who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, who is trying to decide what to do with his life and who wants to leave the farm he grows up on for a life of adventure.
Drawn to an audition for a circus, Celia immediately impresses Chandresh’s clique, including her opponent, Marco: “Then, so swiftly she appears not even to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth.” It gives us a taste of the magical realism and surrealism to come. At this stage, Marco recognises Celia as his opponent, but she does not know he is hers. Gradually she becomes aware of who she is playing, but not before she has fallen in love with him because of the to and fro of their illusions that captivate and astound those lucky entrants to the night circus—including us!
Morgenstern writes in exacting prose that has a mystery of its own, readings as distant, luscious and cinematic all in the same moment. (Unsurprisingly, the movie rights have been snapped up already.) If there are faults, they include a sentimental end and a tendency toward slightly flowery prose in some of the romantic scenes. However, these rare missteps are soon forgotten, for the circus is a wonderland of black and white tents, with characters every bit as mysterious as the circus itself. The magical is commonplace. There is a huge bonfire that never goes out and burns with a white flame—Marco’s opening trick or ‘move’. Each tent is a different attraction, many of them created as illusions by Celia and Marco as part of the contest—and increasingly as part of their love for the other. Some are even wonderful collaborations between the two of them. There are three-dimensional cloud mazes, wishing trees, ice rooms, and the tent where Celia performs as an illusionist herself. The circus travels the world, to London, Cairo, Budapest, Lyon, Paris, Boston, New York and all points in between. Even my hometown Sydney gets a visit!
Meanwhile, Bailey’s story operates in different years, so we have a constant back and forth as the two strands are gradually brought together. Bailey is drawn into the circus by twins, Poppet and Widget, who were born on the first night of the circus to two of its performers, and who become performers themselves. The children enjoy chocolate mice, cinnamon twists and “edible paper, with detailed illustrations in them that match their respective flavors.” Bailey is unsure about his future. He has his tarot cards read by Isobel, who is also in love with Marco. She says to him: “You are part of a chain of events, though you may not see how your actions will affect the outcome at the time.” Just what Bailey’s purpose in the story is remains unclear until the climax.
This story drew me in and didn’t let me go. Long-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, it’s a wonderful achievement, pure storytelling. There’s a name given to those who follow the Night Circus the world over, relying on an informal network of similarly minded enthusiasts to alert them as to where the circus has magically pitched its tents: rêveurs. They wear the black and white of the circus performers but add a dash of red to mark themselves. They are part of the circus, but not of the circus. I think most readers of Morgenstern’s novel will count themselves as members of this unique club. Me? I’m off to find a scarlet scarf…
The night circus by Erin Morgenstern
Source: the local municipal library