A contortionist folds herself into a tiny box. A young girl’s gown changes from white to black in front of your eyes. A magical ice garden waits to be explored within a black and white striped tent. Welcome to the Night Circus, a place where imagination is real, and reality is whatever you can imagine.
Erin Morgenstern has an abundance of creative ideas, and many of them seem to reside in The Night Circus. Told in lush, fluid language, the story centers around a pair of magicians who decide to have a competition. Each selects a protégée to train in the art of illusion, and many years later a playing field is selected and, unbeknownst to the players, the games begin. This playing field is the Night Circus, a creation of mystery and wonder by a man named Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, that appears out of nowhere and is only open from nightfall until dawn. The two players in the game, Celia and Marco, finally meet as young adults; Marco is the circus proprietor’s assistant, Celia the circus illusionist. Both have become masters of illusion, but amidst the magic of the Night Circus, their enforced rivalry turns to love. If the plot seems hazy from this inadequate description, then you can begin to understand the complexity of this labyrinth of a book.
Like the Night Circus itself, there are many twists and turns in the story, and time is a fluid character that winds in and out, taking the reader back and forth between the story of Marco and Celia, and the near future where a boy named Bailey is set to play an important role in the circus. Morgenstern writes in present tense, usually a negative for me, but for this book it seems to work fine; the style creates an immediacy and a feeling that something is about to happen, and it might just be a mystery to the writer as well. The chapters alternate more or less between the present, linear story of the creation of the circus and its beginnings, and the future chapters about Bailey and his propitious meeting with Poppet and Widget, red-haired twins who were born the night the circus opened. Occasional short bursts that address the reader directly are interspersed throughout, leading us on a private tour of some of the circus’ hidden corners. As present and future converge, secrets are revealed and magic is lost and found. Characters fade away and the circus grinds to a halt.
Reading The Night Circus is like being in a dream. Each of Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus and its inhabitants is more unusual and sensual than the next, her creations a feast for all the senses. To over-explain my experience of reading it would take away from the enchantment, and so I leave you to discover the magic for yourself.