Reviews||

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

12th Sep 2011

★★★
The_Night_Circus_Erin_Morgenstern
The debut novel by writer and multimedia artist Erin Morgenstern isn’t out until later this week, but it’s already been hyped to high heaven.

Although originally rejected by around thirty publishers, The Night Circus is now being lauded by the likes of Audrey Niffenegger and Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht.

The film rights have already been optioned (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Tim Burton adaptation), and the promotional shenanigans accompanying its publication include an interactive online game and a real-life one-night circus on London’s South Bank.

And from the very first pages, depicting the unannounced arrival of a mysterious, monochromatic traveling circus that casts a strange spell on all its attendees, you can understand why there has been so much hype.

A darkly delightful cinematic tale set at the turn of the century, The Night Circus has all the essential elements to seduce readers with a fetish for fantasy and fairytale.

With a cast list featuring contortionists, clock-makers, acrobats, illusionists, performing kittens and identical twins who can read people’s pasts and foretell the future, the narrative of The Night Circus weaves together allegory, mythology and magic.With a cast list featuring contortionists, clock-makers, acrobats, illusionists, performing kittens and identical twins who can read people’s pasts and foretell the future, the narrative of The Night Circus weaves together allegory, mythology and magic.

Although the central character is undoubtedly the circus itself, with its carousel, cloud labyrinth and ice garden (to name but a few of the treasures waiting to stumbled upon within its black-and-white striped tents), there are two other protagonists vying for victory.

Celia and Marco are magicians who have been bound to each other, albeit without knowing each other’s identities, since childhood; assigned opposite roles in an enigmatic challenge by their respective strange and sinister guardians.

While at first it seems that the circus is only the setting for their alternating moves in a game neither fully understands, it soon becomes clear that Le Cirque des Rêves has a more important role than either of them realise.

The story unfolds at a glacial pace, focusing instead on immersive accounts of the circus itself; from the white-flamed bonfire, sugar mice, caramel popcorn and spiced apple cider in the central courtyard, to the weird and wonderful experiences awaiting in the ever-evolving tents.

The immediacy of the third-person present tense works well for these sensory adventures through the circus, but it’s problematic when it comes to creating emotional attachment to the characters.

The inevitable romance between Marco and Celia lacks the electricity that characterises the other elements of the circus, and the subplot involving younger trio Poppet, Widget and Bailey is much more engaging (though the reader still has to do the deducing work to fathom their motives and emotions).

The non-linear narrative is occasionally confusing, and the ending is rushed, clumsy and anti-climatic. There’s a lot that’s left unexplained. And yet. Despite all its frustrations, I loved reading The Night Circus, and I know I’ll be re-reading at some point soon.

It isn’t the masterpiece that the media are making out, but it’s still beautiful, richly-imagined and guaranteed to gain its fair share of obssessives.

The Night Circus is published later this week by Harvill Secker.

Comments

  • I really wanted to like this! Morgenstern’s writing is so rich and evocative, but the characters didn’t seem real to me. It might have been because of the jumbled narrative, but suddenly the two main characters were in love – that seemed to happen out of nowhere!

    If Morgenstern came out with a collection of short stories then I’d be all over them, but I got two-thirds of the way through The Night Circus before getting bored. That said, I’m sure it would make an *amazing* film.