Nothing But Memory

The circus arrives without warning

The first time I heard about The Night Circus (2011, Doubleday) by Erin Morgenstern, it was being compared to Harry Potter. My love of Harry Potter is well-established, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I decided to investigate The Night Circus further. The reviews made it sound like something I would enjoy, and indeed, I did enjoy it quite a lot. However, now that I’ve read it, I have no idea why it’s being compared to Harry Potter. It does have magic in it, true, but it’s not a similar story at all, and it’s certainly not aimed at the same age group. The Potter comparison made me expect it to be a children’s or young adult book. Nope! My first clue to the fact that this might be aimed at older readers came on page 10, when a character uses some colourful language. In this way, it reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which also quickly dispels any notion that it might be a children’s book with a well-placed expletive.

The Night Circus, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century, is the story of a magical contest between Celia and Marco, both apprentices to older illusionists who’ve made a game for years out of forcing their students to compete, apparently in order to determine which of their teaching methods is superior. The venue for the duel is Le Cirque des Rêves, an arena of wonders designed completely in black, white, and grey, which opens only after dark and features not just the usual circus performers — acrobats, a contortionist, big (and small) cats, fortune tellers, and Celia, the illusionist — but also elaborate exhibits such as a garden made completely of ice, a carousel that is part mechanical and part magical, and a vertical labyrinth made of clouds. The novel tells the story of the creation and early years of the circus, weaving in many characters such as: Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the perfectionist promoter; Mr. Barris, the architect; Tsukiko, a mysterious contortonist; Poppet and Widget, twins who were born on the circus’ opening night; Herr Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker who designs the circus’ centrepiece clock; and Bailey, who visits the circus as a young boy and forms a bond with Poppet. It soon becomes apparent that all of these people are being affected in unforeseen ways by the circus’ unbreakable link to Celia and Marco’s duel.

The story itself, while engrossing at times and generally strong enough to keep the reader interested, is not outstanding; it runs out of steam in the final act. But it almost doesn’t matter, because The Night Circus works extremely well as a sort of verbal scrapbook, a collection of memories of an enchanting time and place — much like the accounts of the circus compiled by Herr Thiessen in the novel. Through these published writings, “excerpts” of which appear throughout the book, Thiessen becomes “the unofficial leader, the figurehead” of the “most ardent followers” of the circus. It is Herr Thiessen who starts the tradition among “rêveurs,” as these circus followers are known, of wearing a splash of red with the circus’ traditional greyscale colour scheme: the greyscale, he says, makes him feel as though he fits in, while the red reminds him that he is an outsider. Perhaps this position as external observer and chronicler is what makes Herr Thiessen one of the novel’s most memorable and likable characters. Morgenstern leaves the rules of the game in which Celia and Marco find themselves embroiled unclear through most of the novel; if this is a deliberate strategy to enhance the story’s drama, it backfires a bit by making it somewhat difficult for the audience to identify with a situation it has no hope of understanding. Herr Thiessen, by contrast, is just enjoying the wonders of the circus — something the audience can easily get behind.

It is Morgenstern’s vivid descriptions, not only of the circus, but also of the strange and beautiful artefects in the lives of all her characters, which make The Night Circus an outstanding read. The world of the novel is a magical environment full of people who own and design mysterious and wonderful things, such as the clock Herr Thiessen creates for the circus:

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played. (p. 69)

Everything, from Marco’s intricate notebooks, filled with drawings of trees and arcane symbols, to Celia’s magically-changing gowns, to the incredible foods served at Chandresh’s midnight dinners, is painted with such skill that the reader can almost feel it — or taste it, or smell it, as the case may be. Like the circus itself, this is a book of marvels. The physical book itself is also beautifully designed, complementing the sensory aspect of Morgenstern’s writing.

While the story is somewhat flawed, The Night Circus is still a book to savour thanks to Erin Morgenstern’s masterful portrayal of an intriguing world of marvels. The Neil Gaiman comparison I made earlier is probably a good one; the concept seems like something that would appeal to Gaiman fans, and there’s a certain similarity in tone to his work as well. Certainly, it’s much more Neil Gaiman than Harry Potter.

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