The Short Version: The circus arrives without warning. It stays for a few days, open from dusk til dawn, and then disappears without a trace. Those who visit the circus feel as though they’re sucked into some kind of dream – a dream that feels more real than their own waking lives. But behind this wondrous creation of magic and invention is a struggle between two combatants who’ve placed their pawns on the table and created an epic playing field – but who don’t realize that those pawns are bound together in more ways than they can comprehend.
The Short Version: What a triumph. It is a first novel and so, yes, let me dispatch with the quibbles first: there are some pacing/structure issues (the 1902 plot is interesting but jarring, chronologically) and the denouement is a little sacharine (a cliché is a cliché, no matter how well presented). Beyond that, I cannot find a flaw. In fact, I’m having trouble returning myself to reality from the experience of reading this novel. I shall attempt to first compare it to other experiences and perhaps discuss those in order to then get to discussing the novel itself.
First: punchdrunk. For those of you unacquainted, get acquainted. They are a British theatre company specializing in immersive theater… but not the sort of immersive theater you are probably aware of. If you’ve been to New York recently/follow theater, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Sleep No More (Bostonians are possibly aware of it from the A.R.T. run in 2009) – and interestingly enough, Ms. Morgenstern was inspired by this very show in that Boston run. I’m not surprised: the experience of the circus feels like a punchdrunk show. In fact, I want them desperately to turn their brilliant minds towards creating Le Cirque du Rêves in reality. The circus is this massive sprawling thing, composed of circles and looping paths with tents that are mind-bogglingly beautiful and magical. In one, an ice palace. In another, a cloud labyrinth. In another, an illusionist who is truly magical. And so on and so on. Tents you can’t imagine, tents you’ll never see, tents you’ll keep returning to. The experience of a punchdrunk show is similar – you’ll find rooms that you keep going back to, you’ll never see other rooms no matter how many times you go. A sense of disorientation settles over you but you don’t mind – it is as though you are walking through a dream. It is the most wonderful dream and you want to just let your feet take you where they will – it doesn’t matter if you don’t see everything. To just experience the complete immersion in a waking dream is enough. That is the feeling of a punchdrunk show and that is the scene my imagination created while reading this book.
Another connection is to Erick Setiawan’s marvelous and sadly under-known Of Bees and Mist. Another story of a world quite like ours but more magical. Even the writing has similarities, making the two books seems like they could conceivably exist in the same universe. The Night Circus is more grounded in our world – specific references to locations, for one thing – but it is the tone… and something about that tone that makes it so special. There’s an interesting digression (perhaps not the right word but close enough) at the end of the novel where two characters discuss the magic of words. It’s a rather meta moment in many ways – we are reading a book after all – but strangely it doesn’t feel jarring in the way such meta-fictional moments often do. It didn’t feel like Morgenstern was tooting her own horn or drawing attention to her own novel. Instead, it felt… logical. It was a reminder of what had come before and almost a call to action to go out and seek more of the same. It discusses the power behind stories, behind words – the way that they can shape the future unlike anything else. And it’s true: we use words on a daily basis to influence others in ways that nothing else can even approximate. Stories can change the path of your life – they can save you, they can turn you around, they can remind you, they can kill you, they can do any and everything. Because they are the closest thing we actually have to magic in this world.
Not technology but stories. That’s where the magic lies.
And that’s what this book is really all about. The Story itself is as important as the story. You get wrapped up in it and by the end, all you want to do is go out and do something magical. Fall in love, create something extraordinary, even just simply write words on a page or tell someone a tale. And it’s marvelous.
The details surrounding the backstory are sketchy for most of the novel and only get vaguely revealed as it wraps up – and that was admittedly a little frustrating at times. I wanted to understand why these two gentlemen had been pitting their ‘students’ against each other for so long and what it all meant. I told you the denouement was a little disappointing? Well, the revelation behind all of this was so simple and so… petty that it didn’t seem to make sense, really. But just like it Of Bees and Mist, we have to accept that even the smartest and most talented and most rational people do irrational things when faced with emotion. We’re not all Sherlock – hell, even Sherlock isn’t Sherlock. The Hatfields and the McCoys keep fighting because, well, that’s what they do. It defies logic and for that exact reason it cannot be explained to an outsider. It simply is what must be. And that’s the conflict in this novel. Of course, the old men running the show are blind to the needs and emotions of the young living creatures they’re playing with. When death comes into play – and love – it irrevocably changes the field in a way that they can’t understand. Try to imagine it as though the pieces on the chessboard were all animate, alive. That they all had stories of their own – and that when you took your opponent’s pawn, friends on both sides of the board would get upset.
The characters, though, are secondary to some extent: it all comes back to the circus. My god, the circus. I want to walk about in all black and white with a red scarf in the hopes that someone will say to me “are you…” and I will simply smile and we’ll discuss the adventures we’ve both had at the circus. Because, again like a punchdrunk performance, you are irrevocably changed when you leave. Some people hate it and that is that, nothing to be done. But you’ll always know a punchdrunk fan, perhaps by the mask they have hanging on their wall or the way a certain song will make their ears prick up. Hell, the prelude from Vertigo is included on Doubleday’s absolutely fucking brilliant Spotify playlist (if you have Spotify, check it out here) and it made me flash back to wandering about the McKittrick even as I read about wandering through the circus. Layers upon layers….
Rating: 6 out of 5. As I finished the novel (to the sounds of Florence Welch belting out a story of cosmic love and the creeping strains of an ambient Moby track), I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t want to close the book because I didn’t want to leave that world. This book exists outside of time, outside of moment, outside of place. The only thing that exists concretely is the meaning. The magic. The sheer knock-you-down, take-your-breath-away, was-it-a-dream-and-can-I-go-back wonder of it. And this book… this book has it in spades. It is a remarkable debut – even moreso because it would be remarkable for anyone’s book at any time. It is magic. Seek it out with all speed – you won’t regret it.