The Night Circus
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:3 (#356) in March 2012.]
Magic, mystery, romance, heartbreak, fate and free will, illusion, architecture, clockmaking, life and death, bottled stories, gourmet dinners at midnight, juggling kittens, and chocolate mice.
This is a rare and unusual book. Standing quite apart from the usual run of fantasies that are either pseudo-medieval romances, urban supernatural thrillers, or teenage angst with hunky monsters, this one centers instead on a unique circus and a pair of magicians bound together in a duel neither of them understands. What’s more, the style and tone of the book give it a magical feeling of its own quite apart from (yet inextricably linked to) the subject matter.
Set mostly in London and New York of the late Victorian age, the novel traces the stories of the two magician’s apprentices who have been set into opposition with each other, but come to find they have more commonalities than differences. It is also the story of the remarkable performance venue that has been created specifically for them to subtly showcase their talents, and the people behind this circus: the impresario who seeks a new spectacle, the ballerina and actresses who set the visual and emotional tone, the architect who designs structures without the constraints of physical laws, the maker of fabulous clocks whose masterwork adorns the front entrance, and even the avid circus followers (reveurs) dressed all in black and white with a single splash of red. All these characters get their moments of focus and varying degrees of back-story, with the effect of making us care deeply for every one of them. The circus itself is so wondrously described that it ends up becoming a character in its own right. In fact, the only characters for whom I could not find much empathy were the shadowy master sorcerers lurking in the background, pulling the strings — and that’s as it should be, since the author makes the implicit point that these two have long ago lost their souls.
There is also a parallel story, set in a slightly different time frame, concerning a young fellow named Bailey (no relation to Barnum, I’m sure) whose fate slowly becomes entwined with that of the circus, just as the chronology of his storyline gradually merges with that of the main narrative. This element of playing with timelines could have been confusing and ultimately detrimental to the coherence of the novel, but Morgenstern manages to pull it off brilliantly. And rather than it being merely technical trickery, in retrospect it seems absolutely necessary in order to plant the necessary scenes of foreshadowing that become crucial to the climax, and yet to begin Bailey’s story early enough to avoid his seeming like a deus ex machina.
I can’t end this review without praising the wonderful design of the physical book. From the symbolic cover (the circus held in the palm of a female hand) to the endpapers (stark black and white stripes evoking a circus tent), everything is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also resonant with the themes and motifs of the story. The major sections are divided by full pages with radiating stripes on one side and starry blackness on the other, alluding simultaneously to the monochromatic visual aspect of the circus and the stars that foretell its future. The whole effect is to further the feeling that the reader is actually entering the circus every time one picks up the book.
When I finished this book, all I wanted to do was to immediately go back and start reading it all over again. I suspect you will too.