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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.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which, as well as being possibly the most well-known novel by perhaps the greatest living Canadian writer, can also reasonably be called a science fiction classic. Released in 1985, it won the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in Canada. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was nominated for the Booker Prize and a Nebula Award, and came in at number 22 on NPR’s recent reader’s choice list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of all-time.

Despite all the book’s acclaim, I had somehow never read it before. Yes, despite the fact that I’m Canadian, I love Canadian literature, I have two literature degrees in pursuit of which I took multiple Canadian literature courses, and I’m a fan of dystopian novels, I still managed to avoid The Handmaid’s Tale. The first Atwood novel I read was Lady Oracle, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The result was that for years I thought I didn’t like Margaret Atwood. One day I picked up Alias Grace, which I knew my sister had enjoyed, at a used book sale. I thought it was excellent, so I decided I should give Atwood another go. Last month, I read and enjoyed The Robber Bride. I finished that one while I was in London, where I then picked up The Handmaid’s Tale at the British Library’s bookstore after visiting their excellent (but sadly now ended) Out of This World exhibit on the history of science fiction, which featured at least three or four of Atwood’s books and included her as a panel participant, though unfortunately not while I was there. (But I did get to see Neil Gaiman!) Given everything I knew about The Handmaid’s Tale and its status as a highly-regarded piece of Canadian science fiction, I was quite eager to get started on it and learn what the fuss was about.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an imaginary future United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is ruled by religion and is extremely patriarchal: women’s behaviour is strictly codified and monitored. The novel’s narrator is a member of a class of women whose sole function is to act as childbearers for upper class couples who can’t or don’t have their own children. These women wear prescribed clothing — the description made it sound something like a nun’s habit, except red — and are only allowed out of their rooms to run certain errands and take part in authorized rituals. The narrator is known only by the name “Offred.” That’s “of Fred,” Fred being the high-ranking official, called “The Commander,” to whom she now belongs. She tells her life story in non-chronological bits and pieces, describing both her monotonous life as a handmaid and her freer life in the pre-Gilead USA.

One of Atwood’s great strengths as a writer, in my opinion, is her ability to give her characters individual voices. In The Robber Bride, for instance, each of the three protagonists’ sections has a distinct tone that seems to flow perfectly with the way the characters think. In Alias Grace, too, Grace and the doctor’s voices could probably not be more dissimilar. The narrator’s voice in The Handmaid’s Tale is also extremely well-drawn. It is the voice of a woman who can’t quite believe the circumstance she finds herself in. Offred’s feelings of helplessness and desperation come across in every word.

This is, to put it mildly, not a cheerful book. Several passages are disturbing. A description of a funeral procession mourning a miscarried fetus stands out, as does a chilling scene at the handmaids’ training centre in which a young woman recounts how she was gang raped at age 14 while the other girls in the group chant that the incident was her fault. The ease and suddenness with which the new government of Gilead revokes women’s rights to property and employment is also frightening. In a very striking passage, the narrator tells of the immediate shift this change in status causes in her relationship with her husband:

But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.

Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

She’s gone from person to possession in one swift move, and something in her marriage breaks because of it. It is devastating.

I finished the book — which by the way I highly recommend, unless you want to read something happy — earlier today, less than 24 hours after reading that the United States Congress had passed a bill not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “Let Women Die” Act. One of the provisions in this bill allows hospitals to refuse to provide an abortion to a woman who needs it to save her life. Got that? A woman’s pregnancy might be killing her, but this bill would allow medical practitioners to let the mother die rather than aborting the fetus and saving the mother’s life. That the fetus would most likely die too in such a case seems to be irrelevant; what’s important is that the mother should die rather than survive without her unborn child. To me, this says that many American politicians apparently believe that a woman ceases to be a person once she becomes pregnant — heck, maybe just once she hits childbearing age! Her life on its own has absolutely no value; she is nothing more than a vessel, and if she cannot fulfil her biological destiny then she’d might as well die. It’s hard for me to read something like this without wondering whether parts of North America will actually be living The Handmaid’s Tale within my lifetime. As a woman, I’d rather not see this particular vision of the future come to pass.