Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

To say that nearly every review or mention of The Night Circus that I've seen has been positive understates this novel's reception. What I have heard goes beyond general positivity and rises into full on adoration. People love this book, even some who did not expect such a reaction, and having seen very few voices of dissent, I needed to see what the fuss was about.

You will not find dissent here either, for The Night Circus is a beautiful, bewildering, and romantic tale that reminds me of the best imaginative stories told between friends. "The circus arrives without warning," the book begins. "Opens at Nightfall. Closes at Dawn." People gather around its gate and wait, wondering what will be contained within the many black and white striped tents. Time seems to slow, but finally, night falls.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.

Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.

At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. A q, oddly, and several e's. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:

Le Cirque des Rêves

The Circus of Dreams. It's true that the entire book seems to exist in a dreamlike state. It travels back and forth in time and in point of view, and there are almost as many characters as there are individual tents — the mentioned tents, at least. At the heart of the circus is Celia Bowen, an illusionist who is able to manipulate the details of the world around her to such a degree that she must consciously act as though it is a trick during her show. The audience must be wowed, but they still must think that what they see must have some explanation — other than its being entirely real.

On the opening night of the circus, in London on October 13 and 14, 1886, a set of twins are born. Winston Aidan Murray is born six minutes before midnight, and his sister Penelope Aislin Murray is born seven minutes after midnight. They are the children of a wild-cat tamer and his wife, and they are soon given the nicknames Widget and Poppet. Besides their bright red hair, they are also notable in that they are strangely alert for being newborns. As they grow older, their own special skills become more clear.

Eleven years later, a boy named Bailey encounters the circus for the first time in Concord, Massachusetts. He loved every moment of it and can't wait to go back for a second night. While waiting with his sister and some other children during the day, his sister dares him to break into the circus and to bring back something as proof. Though it seems risky and impossible, his curiosity wins over and he manages to sneak in through a gap in the fence. A girl about his age, dressed entirely in white except for her "exceptionally shocking" red hair, tells him he should leave, but first gives him one of her gloves.

Bailey cannot stop thinking about the girl and the circus, and how much he wishes he had a life outside of working his father's farm.

He reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself. And he is not in the position to do any rescuing of his own.

Behind all this is an ongoing challenge between Celia and an initially unknown competitor, a game begun by her father and an old friend — though friend isn't quite the right word — and the circus is the board on which they play. The rules and details are not clear even to the competitors themselves, though they do know that creating some of the circus' more impressive features are a part of it.

There are many more characters and plot elements, but to describe them all would ruin much of the experience of reading. Because the book jumps around in time and point of view, it can take some time to acclimate to what is going on and when, but it does all make sense, especially by the end. I can only imagine how much work editing the book was for Erin Morgenstern, to make everything flow together in a coherent way that also maintained the lucid dreamlike environment.

One criticism I have read about The Night Circus is that it relies too much on set description at the expense of action, and I suppose I can see that point, but I rather enjoyed all the scene-laying. If we are to believe in the fantastic beauty of this place, then we need to be able to see it. The plot, especially the challenge, is a slow-burner, but I didn't mind.

Part of what makes the book so effective is that it taps into our desires for something greater than ourselves, and our yearning for moments of magic. The circus provides an escape for all who visit it, a place where they have no responsibilities other than to enjoy the experience. Because there are different tents instead of one big tent with different scheduled events, the guests are invited to choose their own path. The circus does not dictate what one should find pleasurable, or when one should see it. A person can spend all night in one tent, or they can try to visit as many as they can before sunrise. It's a lovely idea.

The Night Circus also recognizes our attempts at holding onto our memories, and how some details slip out of our minds despite our best efforts, while at other times, they can come rushing back with a force that is startling.

He recalls what the tag said about opening things, wondering what could possibly be inside all of these jars. Most of the clear-glass ones look empty. As he reaches the opposite side of the table, he picks one at random, a small round ceramic jar, glazed in black with a high shine and a lid topped with a round curl of a handle. He pulls the lid off and looks inside. A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of a striped candy. It is dizzying and wonderful and disturbing. After a few moments, he replaces the lid and puts the jar carefully back on the table.

He looks around at the jars and bottles, intrigued but hesitant to open another.

While I did not fall head-over-heels for this book — which was likely for anything that I read post-Beautiful Ruins — I still enjoyed it immensely. The Night Circus is a sprawling and wonderful world in which to retreat, and I am glad that the hype did not scare me off. Do seek this one out.

I got this book from my local library. Support yours.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.


  1. This book came recommended to me by Amazon after buying The Snow Child (have you read that? It's my favourite!) and I keep meaning to read it. Your review has bumped it up my to-read list.

  2. I haven't read that, no, but I'm currently reading The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker, which I've seen compared to this book. I'm glad you like my review!

  3. I really enjoyed this book. It was a bit dicey to follow sometimes because of the various stories intertwining, but thought it was very original (but in a good way!). I did find it a bit challenging to read on the kindle because it was important to have a sense of the dates, which was a hassle to return to the start of the chapter to check.