Staff Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I hesitate to review this debut novel, not wishing to write such a glowing description that subsequent readers will feel too great a sense of expectation. Yet only glowing adjectives are suited to such an elegantly written, captivatingly plotted and uniquely charactered tale. The title is an understatement, one of those inadequate translations that skims over the rich nuances of the setting’s true name, Le Cirque des Reves. The cover of one edition shows a delicate hand lifting a black-and-white striped circus tent surmounted by a clock and this, in retrospect, conveys the blend of chaos and control that comprise such a venue – exuberant performances carefully orchestrated to astonish and enthrall, incarnate here as a bichromatic construct that, as a Boston Globe critic wrote, “haunts and bewitches.” The premise is a simple and familiar one: two enchanters commit their respective students to a competition that will determine which of the enchanters themselves is more powerful. Each student is trained in particular techniques their mentors have created and enhanced beyond any past conception, one in a strictly demanding but loving home and the other in harsh near-isolation. When their skills are fully honed, each student takes a role in a fantastical circus first conceived, with a little help from one of the enchanters, as an amusing diversion for a group of wealthy and unusual acquaintances. Marco, as personal assistant to the gentleman who first imagines the circus, attends to the management side while Celia is a performer. He observes from afar; she is an integral member of the cast. The circus appears without fanfare at sites around the world, traveling from one to the next in its special train then raising itself from the ground to open its gates once Night has fallen. Morgenstern’s imagining of the circus, on the other hand, is anything but simple. Centered on a brilliant white bonfire, its paths may lead directly from one tent to the next or wander randomly. The Wunschtraum clock at the entrance is something like a cabinet of curiosities or perhaps Gregory Maguire’s Clock of the Time Dragon. The acrobats’ breathtaking performance takes place high above the heads of the audience with no intervening net to obscure their movements. The Cloud Maze comprises platforms linked by white ropes and netting, blurred by snowball-like white spheres through which one dives headfirst after reaching the top. The Wishing Tree is arrayed with candles, each one lit from an already-burning candle so that each wish strengthens and is strengthened by the others. The tale Morgenstern centers upon the circus moves through time – about the turn of the 19th & 20th centuries – and between the worlds of the circus and a reality increasingly influenced by the circus. It begins to seem as tho’ there can be no resolution to the competition set so long before but Morgenstern finds one that is both bittersweet and as richly satisfying as the caramel apples enjoyed by circus patrons. You will be intrigued, delighted and eager for Morgenstern’s next novel.

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