I’m going to be completely honest. I bought The Night Circus for its cover: a whimsical gallery of swirling black-and-white silhouettes, enlivened with splashes of scarlet. Call me superficial: but, in this case, judging a book by its cover was a very good idea. This is Morgenstern’s first novel, but her writing style is already deft and economic, and she creates a series of vivid scenes that unfurl one after the other like flowers within flowers.
At the heart of the novel are Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to act as pawns for their masters – Celia’s demanding, difficult father, who disguises his real magic as mere illusionism, and Marco’s even more enigmatic guardian, who has something of the Mephistophelean about him. The challenge: to prove their teacher’s supremacy by outdoing their adversary in feats of magic. The stage: a circus, the like of which has never been seen before, where everything is coloured in black and white and shades of grey, which arrives in town and leaves again with no forewarning, and in which magic blurs the line between reality and imagination.
It’s in the circus – the Cirque des Rêves – that Morgenstern’s writing is most beguiling. She emphasises that one must enter the circus alone and, once inside, a visit seems to be a solitary experience, drawn deeper and deeper into the almost hallucinatory atmosphere of circling pathways, fortune-tellers, living statues and the scents of caramel and spiced cider. For some visitors, the close-knit circle of enthusiasts who call themselves rêveurs, the circus – the dream – becomes more real than reality itself and they follow it across the world, addicted to its visions as others are addicted to opium. As Celia and Marco compete to create tents which contain ever more dazzling manipulations of reality, Morgenstern conjures up a series of beautiful, elegaic tableaux: ice gardens, animated paper dragons, jars which contain the essences of stories, labyrinths of the mind. Some of the visions reminded me of Tim Burton’s designs for Edward Scissorhands, with the same strange beauty. I defy you to finish the book without wishing that the circus actually existed, so that you might see it for yourself.
Morgenstern’s setting, mainly at the turn of the 20th century, will chime well with the current fashion for Victoriana – the revival of Sherlock Holmes; the increasingly mainstream steampunk trend; the playful approach taken by authors like G.W. Dahlquist in The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Yet, compared to these, Morgenstern has the advantage of simplicity. Despite its specified historical period, her story has the timeless feel of a fable or fairy-tale. It isn’t complex and deeply affecting, but it doesn’t need to be. I should add, too, that the actual magic is very low-key. I’m not a fan of wands and arcane spells, and here the focus is on the dazzling results of the magic, rather than the subtle act of creation.
All in all, it’s a finely-crafted piece of escapism, the perfect book for curling up in a comfy chair on a Sunday afternoon as the nights draw in.