The uses of enchantment

Book review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern | Published by Harvill Secker, 2011

By the end of this fable, you too may be a rêveur

The Night Circus is a fairy tale for grown-ups, reminiscent of the Greek and Roman myths in which people and animals metamorphose, are alternately imprisoned and set free. The story unfolds in a dreamlike manner in the present tense and although it is ‘set’ in the nineteenth century, taking place in London, New York, Paris, Prague and other cities, this is not a historical novel and the characters do not behave or speak like Victorian or Edwardian people. The city settings are not fleshed out and the daytime ‘real’ world remains vague and insubstantial. The only setting that is developed in detail is that of Le Cirque des Rêves, The Circus of Dreams, which is outside time, evolving in an eternal night.

The circus of the title goes beyond the expected acrobatic and juggling acts. The characters are transported on a ship made of books that sails across a sea of ink, climb through cloud mazes, open bottles containing memories and wander through a menagerie of moving paper animals. The carousel is not made up of sculpted horses but of moving and breathing gryphons, foxes, wyverns and wolves. Don’t be misled, however, by the mention of magic and fantastic creatures. This novel takes inspiration from The Tempest and the tale of Merlin and Nimue, not Harry Potter.

Against this other-worldly backdrop, Celia and Marco are trained for a deadly contest to satisfy the egos of two rival sorcerers who avoid suspicion by passing themselves off as stage musicians. They rely not on trap doors, mirrors and misdirection but on real magic. Celia’s possessive and cruel father, who goes by the stage name of Prospero, trains her to use her senses and emotions to control the physical world. Marco’s distant instructor subjects him to years of solitary theoretical study. As the battle between heart and mind, experience and knowledge escalates, more people are transformed and endangered by Le Cirque des Rêves.

Although the story is full of playful, fantastical whimsy, there is also a dark undercurrent of longing, loss and grief. A young man, Bailey, caught between family duty and the wish for something more from life, is pulled into the circus’s orbit, as is a clock maker, Friedrick, who becomes a spokesperson for the circus’s admirers. Bailey, Friedrick and the circus’s eccentric founders are imperilled when they try to investigate the true source of the circus’s power, so that Celia and Marco have to decide how they will temper their power with responsibility, illusion with honesty.

The Night Circus pulls you in like a dream. Although the dialogue is sometimes stilted and the love story less interesting than the visual world that Morgenstern creates, I found that I wanted the tale to go on, undisturbed by the waking world. By the end of this fable, you too may be a rêveur, one of the devotees of the circus:

“They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent.

They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. … They sit over their drinks smiling like children and they relish being surrounded by kindred spirits, if only for an evening. When they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they go their separate ways they feel less alone than they had before.”

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