The Night Circus
As one of you observed in the comments recently, I’ve been in need of a really good book. And as I read that comment, I had just finished a really good one. In fact, I stretched out my reading of the book because it was so wonderful I didn’t want to finish too fast. The book is Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus.
Everything about this book was special, from the moment I won it in a giveaway at The Book Journey to the day it arrived gift-wrapped in black and white striped tissue paper with a red ribbon and I opened it up to find an epigraph by Oscar Wilde: “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” That seems to me the perfect way to introduce the fragility and splendor created in this novel.
Olivia Laing, in The Guardian, says the novel suffers from an “excess of kittens,” which as bloggers know, is quite impossible–and besides, it leads to the evocative chapter title “Ailuromancy.” Nothing about this novel seemed excessive to me, at least on first reading. If all the food is sugary, it’s because that’s how dreams are, from the dinners in Hook to the madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past. If the physical culmination of the love affair is more implied than described, that’s because we don’t need to see that much of the man behind the curtain.
As many previous reviewers have observed, the circus itself is the main character–there’s not a lot of plot or action in The Night Circus, nor are the characters particularly well developed. The magic of it is that even though the water is perfectly clear, you can’t see to the bottom.
The way the story is told is part of the charm, with lots of time spent on setting the scene and choosing just the right words to describe it. This is part of a description of the end of Halloween at the circus: “most people seek their fortunes early in the evening. The late of the night is suited for less cerebral pursuits. Earlier the querents filed in almost nonstop, but as October fades into November there is no one waiting in the vestibule.” The circus moves around without notice, so on a subsequent Halloween night, “children are dragged away with promises that they may return the next evening, although the circus will not be there the next evening and later those children will feel slighted and betrayed.”
People who love books will love the description of what it’s like to live surrounded by them: “she ran out of space for her library some time ago, but instead of making the room larger she has opted to let the books become the room. Piles of them function as tables, others hang suspended from the ceiling.”
At one point, a character tries necromancy, but it doesn’t work: “I tried. I thought I might be able to fix it. I’ve known him so long. That maybe it would be like setting a clock to make it tick again. I knew exactly what was wrong but I couldn’t make it right.”
There is no hero who is born to make things right with the circus when they go wrong, but there is a volunteer, who is told “you’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done.” I like to think that showing up and caring could be enough to make me the hero of a story, even though in this story “good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?” Even more, I like the self-conscious flourish of the ending: “you may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words.”
The circus has aficionados, or reveurs, “who see the details in the bigger picture 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….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.” This is how I feel when I meet people who regularly reread The Lord of the Rings, or Firefly fans, or book bloggers. And the best part is that “the circus knows of them, and appreciates them,” like when an author I adore sends me an advance copy of his next novel. In fact, Erin Morgenstern identifies some of the reviewers who have liked her novel as “reveurs” on her website. I am one. I hope to be one.