A tree of clouds, a garden made from ice, a merry-go-round with every exotic animal imaginable, a white fire that never goes out… This is a circus like you’ve never been to before, and that is even before you have seen any of the acrobats, jugglers and other performers. It appears and disappears without warning, like the clever illusionist in one of the tents, and it seems to hypnotize its visitors, like the handsome man who manages it, does with those around him. The Night Circus is a fantasy novel that people seem to adore or detest. I can tell you right away that I belong to the first group.
In 1873, two proud men with magical powers bind themselves to an agreement: a game between them, played out through their chosen apprentices. It is not the first time they play the game, both have won and lost in the past, but this time one of them decides to place his own daughter on the board. The thought of losing her, in the case that they lose the game, doesn’t seem to upset him. The five-year-old girl, Celia, knows nothing about the implications of the game. Her father doesn’t think she should know the rules, or what it is that would make someone win. All she has to do is train her powers and do as she is told. The orphan boy Marco, whom his opponent chooses to train, isn’t better informed. He is taught an older form of magic, to do with books, spells and rituals, while Celia is trained to work more intuitively with the power that she finds inside herself.
When both children have grown up, the game is truly swung into gear. An idea is planted in the head of Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, eccentric cultivator of theatrical projects, and the man brings together an extraordinary group of people in order to realize his latest plan: a circus like no one has ever seen before. Ever at his service is his faithful assistant, the young Marco. One of the first artists to successfully audition for the circus is a beautiful illusionist called Celia. Their arena prepared, the secret players take their places. All they know is that they have to outperform their opponent.
The Cirque des Rêves (‘Circus of Dreams’) is a labyrinth of striped tents and pathways, all black and white and filled with the most wondrous acts and experiences. You never know when it is going to appear: at any given night, it might appear fully set up on a previously empty field. The circus opens at sundown and closes at sunrise, often staying a couple of weeks in the same place before it disappears again. It crosses the globe without noticeable plan or pattern and it seems like, every time it reappears, it has new tents with even more magic disguised as illusions. It develops a cult following: people who call themselves rêveurs, dreamers, and try best as they can to follow the circus or at least visit it as often as possible.
Time passes, although the people associated with the circus don’t seem to age anymore. The notion that some things about the circus are not quite right, not possible, gnaws at the minds of some of the original team and it becomes harder to put those minds at ease with magical manipulation. The circus itself is a powerful place, full of magic, illusions and dozens of people. As Marco and Celia build ever more surreal tents, it becomes harder to balance these powers and the effect they have on both visitors and circus employees. When it is not just magic affecting people, but love and jealousy as well, the situation becomes pretty much untenable… In a remarkable turn of events, the decision of an unremarkable American boy called Bailey will determine the course of the deadly serious game.
The story constantly shifts between perspectives, dates and locations. The effect is dizzying, confusing, like the Cirque des Rêves itself. The non-chronological style is hard to follow at first but makes perfect sense in the logic of the story. As the tale progresses, some plot lines run faster ahead in time than others, which eventually brings every string together for the great finale. It is the perfect form for a book about illusions and trickery. I loved this, because I think a lot of authors would depend on colourful language and plot alone to write a book like this. Erin Morgenstern, by thinking out every detail and making form comply with style and storytelling, adds layers to the story and makes it even more satisfying to read.
Although, as a reader, you know no more about the goal of the game than the players do, you do know a bit more about the stakes. Even from the beginning, it is apparent that this is not a game that allows for a draw: someone must lose, and losing will be costly. Knowing more than the characters do is an age-old trick that works very well to provoke a feeling of unease while the characters are still discovering just how dangerous the game really is. But the people actually play a secondary role at best; the circus itself is the main character. I think this is the reason why some people think it’s boring or stupid. The story does progress quite slowly and spans more than a decade, merely touching upon the characters’ thoughts and feelings but leaving most of them hidden from view. A great part of the book consists of descriptions of scenes and atmosphere. A romance brews in the background but doesn’t take over the story, action scenes are all the result of tensions that it takes at least a dozen chapters to build. If you like fast-paced stories or clear-cut romance, this is not something that will appeal to you. It’s quite the opposite of minimalist. As a woman who spends a lot of time inside her own head, I thought it was wonderful to stay in the most beautiful circus in the world for a while. Let me put it like this: contrary to what you might expect from the title or the text on the back cover, this is not a book that entertains. It’s a book that mesmerises.
Pink Elephants On Parade Award for a surreal circus world that leaves you with a book hangover
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (New York, 2011)