The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern
2011, Fiction (Turn of the century America and Europe)
Anchor, $15.00, 512 pages, Amazon ASIN 0307744434

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Subtle

The buzz around this book has been insane, so I didn't know what to expect going into the book. Something about magic, a romance certainly, and judging by the flowery cover and even more flowery synopsis, a complete lack of humor. Turns out I was right on all counts. Is that bad? Certainly not, and the evocative, sweeping prose is the book's greatest strength. But it's also the greatest weakness. Despite the undeniable (and sometimes unwilling) desire to keep turning the pages, reading The Night Circus was sometimes like seeing Narcissus staring at himself in the mirror.

For the most part The Night Circus reads like a fable, a tale told to one's grandchildren over many nights. The story of two magicians locked in unwilling battle at the turn of the century has enough scope, twists, intrigue, and magic to keep readers hanging for two nights or two months. It definitely kept me turning the pages, from the first description of a nocturnal circus that disappears with the dawn, to poignant vignettes of Marco and Celia's childhoods.

They were reared by magicians, she by her father Prospero the Enchanter and he by Alexander, a man in a grey suit. Prospero (aka Hector Bowen) and Alexander have waged an ongoing battle for years, each training an apprentice and pitting them against each other in a new arena, and each getting more and more bored. This year they have chosen the Night Circus, a wondrous enchantment that has secrets and magic embedded into its magical genome.

The descriptions of the circus enchantments have a life of their own, and it truly is a compliment that I would actually like to see a film made of the book. Ms. Morgenstern's words are juicy enough on their own, but I would be interested to see an interpretation of imagery whose concreteness comes and goes like the Night Circus itself. A clock with jugglers and clouds moving across a living sky. A bonfire that grows darker with each flaming arrow. Rooms that mutate with each passing guest. The vividness has a a disadvantage, however, of being severely in love with its own language, and occasionally the prose becomes less of a thing of beauty and more that of a precocious child bowing smugly after playing a Beethoven sonata.

Slightly less compelling but as full of potential are the secondary characters. A young Midwestern boy whose fate is tied to that of the circus. A Japanese contortionist. My favorite, Herr Thiessen, the clockmaker who becomes the first reveur, followers of the Night Circus who wear a splash of red to relieve the stark black and white. These characters have life, grief, intimacy, and colour that is unfortunately entirely lacking in Marco and Celia.

Perhaps it is the nature of the tale. Often times the most interesting characters in folk stories and epic tales are the secondary ones, for the main characters are merely vehicles, archetypes, and metaphors for grander ideas. Whereas the secondary characters just get to be themselves. Marco and Celia are pawns of their fathers, blank cutout dolls in the story, and victims of the circus. At best you read The Night Circus as a folk tale, with its accompanying limitations. At worst Marco and Celia are drab, colourless, borderline unnecessary additions whose initial promise is not borne out.

Which is why I'd like to see The Night Circus as movie. I find the book enjoyably readable but very imbalanced, a feast of words that borders on self-indulgence. Last October when it came out, a Random House book presenter said she hadn't been this excited about a book since Harry Potter. Well, those are big words, and in general I'd say "Um, no". But then again, the sheer power of the imagery, and the story itself, can't be underestimated, and shouldn't be undervalued.

-- Jean Wan

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