Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is really weird. The book is a series of linked vignettes, strung like a one-of-a-kind necklace from odd beginning to jarring end. The real name of the circus, which opens at dusk and closes at dawn, appears unannounced in an empty field and is colored entirely black and white, is Le Cirque de Rêves—the circus of dreams. The entire story might be a dream—it certainly makes the point that the reality we apprehend is a construct of mind and that we can alter the dream at will or be captive of the nightmare that plays across our closed eyes when we sleep.
Near the end of the story, Morgenstern quotes Shakespeare’s Prospero; the passage would have been too instructive to include earlier in the book:
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
How to re-cap this tale? Celia is the child of a magician who masquerades his skills as an illusionist. He trains her from age six to wage a challenge against the protégé of another magician, binding her to the wager with a silver ring that burns a permanent brand into her hand. The other magician plucks a boy, Marco, from an orphanage—apparently in late 19th-century England orphans can be selected like groceries—and trains him in the ancient ways of magic from books. Celia is an intuitive and can manipulate matter. Marco creates fabulous structures out of formulae and spells.
The circus is the brainchild of a wealthy entrepreneur who specializes in the highly iconoclastic and throws midnight dinner parties for a select group of collaborators. None of these characters is as straightforward as they might seem. The circus arrives without warning. It seduces, delights and subverts lives. It contains the most amazing and unimaginable acts. It is unlike anything anyone has ever seen—as improbable and fascinating as the richest of dreams. Within it, lives unfold, performances astonish, magical children are born, wonders never cease. Outside the black and white striped tents and the iron perimeter fence, lives unravel, people grow old, some die, fans exchange stories and travel the world to find the circus and bask in its glow for a few nights. Celia is the illusionist of the circus, performing nightly; Marco is the assistant of the circus owner, living in London. Both are essential to keep the fantasy of the tents and performers alive.
Meanwhile Celia and Marco discover that each is the other’s competitor. They also fall in love. This is a complication that was not in the script. It will wreak havoc with the careful plans of their puppet-masters. And the contortionist and the fortuneteller have their own agendas; magicians perform acts that go horribly wrong and leave them evanescent—not gone but not quite there; a boy who climbs apple trees takes a dare to break into the circus in the daylight and changes his life. No spoilers here—it is impossible to summarize this story without telling the whole thing.
The language is mesmerizing, the premise is hypnotic; the conceits are captivating. I liked the book but I did resist the forecast forced combat that promised to end badly and I am really unfamiliar with this brand of fantasy—it’s something like an extended drug-induced hallucination from the 60s. I would read it again to puzzle it through more diligently. The Night Circus may be the most unusual book you read any time soon. Despite, or maybe because of, its episodic construction, it has the power to hold your attention.
The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern | Doubleday 2011