The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
The Circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it... It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The same cannot be said for the arrival of this debut novel which comes loaded with hype, marketing and expectation. My proof came gift-wrapped in black and white (signature colours of the circus itself) with a little card attached - this, it was being announced, was something special. The first two pages are quotes from various people within Random House sharing their thoughts on discovering the book, and there have been plenty of voices on the various social media platforms sharing their excitement about the upcoming phenomenon. Film rights already sold, all stops pulled out in the production of a sumptuous hardback (black-edged pages, die-cut cover, ribbon marker - it's all there) there are so many stars that can be aligned before a book's publication but then people have got to just go ahead and read it. And we all know how magic works: misdirection.
I remember this happening once before. Anyone read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel? Anybody else as disappointed by it as I was? All sorts of absurd claims were made on behalf of that book and what a game-changer it would be but the fact of the matter is that it wasn't nearly as magical as it thought it was and was in fact downright dull in places (please feel free to disagree with me below). This book isn't quite as bad as that, and will probably make a rather good film (this is its main problem actually: it's a film, not a novel) but I'm rather surprised and disappointed to see the full publicity machine at Harvill Secker, who have provided some of the most rewarding reading experiences for me in their efforts to bring quality translated fiction from Europe and elsewhere to the English market, being put behind this ultimately disappointing book.
The circus of the title is just that, a travelling circus that seems to appear out of nowhere in quiet fields across the globe, offering varied delights and entertainments from dusk till dawn at the latter end of the 19th century. But it is also an arena, a battleground if you like where two men have each placed their protégé in a contest of magic, will and endurance. One of these is Hector Bowen, also known as Prospero the Enchanter, a magician who has learned to hide his very real magical skills under his guise as a theatrical entertainer.
"Not a single person in that audience believes for a second that what I do up there is real,' he says, gesturing in the general direction of the stage. "That's the beauty of it. Have you seen the contraptions these magicians build to accomplish the most mundane feats? They are a bunch of fish covered in feathers trying to convince the public they can fly, I am simply a bird in their midst. The audience cannot tell the difference beyond knowing that I am better at it."
He uses his own daughter Celia as a pawn in the longtime battle with his rival, a mysterious man known almost throughout the book as simply 'the man in the grey suit' (and occasionally Mr A H). Hector develops Celia's innate talents and submits her to a gruelling regime which includes slicing the tips of her fingers open one by one until she can heal all ten at once. Mr A H selects a young boy from an orphanage (naming him Marco Alisdair) and determines to teach him everything he will need for 'the game' in which he will face Celia. What is the game? Well, neither of them knows but each has their own understanding. For Marco it is a set of scales, 'one side is mine, the other is hers.' But as a friend is keen to point out to him, 'if you both keep adding to your sides of the scale, increasing the weight on each side in turn...won't it break?' Celia sees a test, 'about how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed in a public venue, in a world that does not believe in such things. It's a test of stamina and control, not skill.' to which her father characteristically replies, 'It's a test of strength.'
The contest is even solemnised by a ring placed on each of their fingers which disappears but leaves a mark behind. The two are betrothed to each other in conflict. So here we have the first major problem. This isn't a spoiler, it's just common sense. There's a girl and a boy, they are unknowingly in conflict with each other: I can't be the only person reading those opening pages thinking 'They're going to fall in love,' (as of course they must) 'and it's going to end in tears!' (no real spoilers here, don't worry). Once you accept that inevitability then the rest of the plotting feels a bit like decoration and the only moments of real narrative drive come when the two young lovers battle against their own predicament.
Le Cirque des Rêves, as it is known, is created by the exotically named impressario Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, although he is only really a figurehead under the enchantment of the duelling master-magicians. It is the descriptions of his circus and its entertainments that give this book its major appeal. As I said earlier it's really an adorned film script and some of the descriptive passages are very impressive. You get a very clear picture of certain images and objects: a tattooed contortionist compacting herself into a glass box, a tent filled with cloud-like structures, a dress made of material that seems to change colour and texture at will. One of the enduring symbols of the circus is an extraordinary clock constructed by Friedrick Thiessen, and there are great illustrative descriptions of a clock face that changes colour from white, through grey into black as the time passes, 'Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.' Figures and objects appear, 'perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual pages that turn...teapots pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Small cats chase dogs. An entire game of chess is played.' In fact looking back at some of these passages you realise another weakness of the book is that the writing is a bit ordinary at times. It may be describing magical things and extraordinary sights but it does so in prose that is neither magical nor extraordinary. Luckily the images and descriptions are strong enough for you to not really notice it and this where the book begins to use the trick of magic itself where distraction and misdirection can prevent you from seeing the mechanics that underpin the illusion.
I'm afraid that for me as an observer, for that is what you always remain when reading this book as none of the characters have sufficient depth to draw you in any deeper (and the sub-plot of normal boy Bailey and his encounter with the circus certainly fails to achieve that task), there just isn't enough quality in the writing to satisfy and however impressive the fireworks feel at the time there's a great feeling of disappointment once the smoke clears and the soggy architecture is all that remains. Even at its highest pitch, with the stakes as high as they can be, it doesn't read as much more than an elaborate romance novel. There are moments of promise. Thiessen unwittingly becomes the first 'rêveur', a follower of the circus from venue to venue, and there is something charming about his wish to join its magic even whilst being unable to really become a part of it. And for those who are very much a part of it there is the confusion that comes from being under an enchantment that seems to arrest ageing and illness, confuse the states of consciousness.
"I am finding it difficult to discern between asleep and awake," Tara says, tugging at her lace cuffs again. "I do not like being left in the dark. I am not particularly fond of believing in impossible things."
That last sentence is perhaps the reason why I was never going to want to become a rêveur myself. I don't really want to be the child who spots the magician palming the coin and spoils the trick for everyone else but there's no real magic on display here.