I will confess that I am almost always a sucker for a really great book cover. I have countless paperback sci-fi fantasy novels that have cover art by Thomas Canty. Most of them are ok, some are great but I’ll admit it right here and now: I bought them because of the awesome covers.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was also such a book. The elegant black and white cover with brilliant red accents and silver swirl flourishes charmed me from across the room. A graceful hand holds an elaborate set of black and white stripped tents crowned with a clock set on a black background with stars. I saw it on an end cap at one of those huge, decadent and impersonal mega bookstores. But I resisted its charm–I did not want to cheat on my favorite local bookstore, so I waited till I got home to purchase it. It was difficult to wait for it because I was completely smitten with it without even picking it up. However, it was worth the wait and I immediately got it when I returned home.
And yes, I am spending that much time describing the cover. But the story itself is so much like the cover, it is worth the time spent. In fact, rarely have I seen artwork on the dust cover that more clearly evoked the story within.
“Opens at nightfall closes at dawn.” Right away we are aware that this is not an ordinary circus. Within the first few pages it is clear that this is the kind of circus that … well … I always wanted a circus to be. Most importantly, there are no clowns. Clowns are, after all, evil. (Reference: every single episode of Scooby Doo.) This is a magical circus. This is no spoiler here because that is a ready pick up. It is magic disguised as illusion. Real magic disguised as tricks.
And there’s the interesting thing that seems to go back and forth throughout the story. What’s real and what’s not? Now, this is not one of those psychedelic styled stories that reads like Johnny Depp in a film of a Hunter S Thompson book where you cannot tell if something is real or imagined. It’s more like a kaleidoscope story or, perhaps better said, it’s like a story read from the inside of a hall of mirrors. What is real and what is a reflection of real? Is the magic that forms the carousel real or are the mechanics that ground it into believability real?
Our two main characters, Marco and Celia, are competitors in some sort of chess-like game with unknown or unknowable parameters. They compete by feats of magic, but the nature of their competition takes a turn that neither of the men driving the competition may have expected. I liked Celia right away. Did not like Marco, but he grew on me quickly. Their competition and relationship are made manifest in the circus itself. More on this in the Spoilers section below.
The story is also told from different points in time and differing character’s perspectives, each chapter locating itself by a subtitle with date and location. Interspersed are first hand stories of the circus experience which draw you in to the front-of-the-curtain portion of the story. While the time and location changes seem sporadic, perhaps even a bit affected, it is clearly reminiscent of an illusionist’s misdirection and control of the audience’s view during a performance.
The characters, who are numerous and charming, are not all as fully developed as I would have liked. However, that may be largely due to the number of personalities at play. This is not a story about two people. This is a story about an entire company of players, the outsiders that follow them and even the very circus itself. If there is one character that is fully enfleshed it is Le Cirque de Reves. You can smell, taste, feel, walk about her black and white tents and feel the draw of it all and even, if only for a moment, wish she were a real circus to see that amazing clock, to light a candle on the wishing tree, smell a scent from one of the bottles in the tent labeled Anthologies of Memory, to stand by the amazing bonfire encased in the wrought iron caldron or to be drawn to what ever field it appears in without warning with that sense of wonder and mystery and hope that only a childlike belief in possibility can grant.
There was a Joss Wedon feel to the cast, particularly in that persons who might otherwise be disposable were actually quite mysterious and intriguing. Tsukiko is just one of these, a contortionist who remains largely on the fringe for considerable portions and then steps in quite surprisingly like a magician’s assistant stepping out of an unexpected cabinet.
The story had, at least for me, a quite satisfying resolution. An enchanting tale that both revealed and concealed just like an illusionist. I recommend it highly.
My thoughts about books are often influenced by whatever else I am reading at the time or just before. Before this, I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which was another story of a man and a woman (boy and girl) pitted against each other in a battle to the death that neither of them chose and, somehow, they fall in love and, somehow, they manage to re-write the unavoidable outcome of the game so as to avoid having to kill each other. This is very intriguing to me and I have to wonder what this might say about underlying tensions our culture perceives in romantic relationships. Not a fully formed thought here, just a wonder. It seems that this story vehicle is somewhat new and I wonder about its cultural implications.
An intriguing portion of the relationship between Marco and Celia is that in this competition they begin creating the circus for each other rather than to defeat the other. In a sense, the circus is their child–a creation of their love. It starts as the way they learn about each other, develops into a way of loving each other and ends up being quite literally their reason for existence. The notion of creativity and creating a work of art together that is a manifestation of their love is compelling.
The character of Baily seemed to me almost extra, almost superfluous or an after thought. That is until I completed the story and thought about it for a while. Baily is not particularly special–special enough to recognize the amazing when he sees it and special enough to want his own path in the world, but not specially gifted or talented in any way. He is just like you and me. And even he becomes part of the circus. More than that, he becomes the very crucial piece of the circus and all her players’ continued existence. The circus, the illusions, the magic does not exist without Baily and all the Bailys of the world just like you and me. Unless of course you are an illusionist and I just don’t know it.
I’ve also been reading a philosophy/theology non fiction book called Beauty Will Save The World by Gregory Wolfe. It is striking to me that in The Night Circus there is nothing ugly. There are certainly ugly actions, ugly intentions and dreadfully ugly relationships, but everyone and everything is beautiful. Good and bad alike are beautiful. And this beauty is not sinister, even though sinister things are still beautiful. The blood stain on Celia’s dress after the accidental murder of Frederick Thiessen is beautiful, every last square inch of the circus, the train that bears the circus along, Chandresh’s home, Marco’s apartments, Bailey’s farm and sheep and tree, even Mr A H– and Prospero are beautiful. Perhaps that is the point after all. All are beautiful.
At the end of the story, the man in the grey suit makes a deal with Widget to give over his portion of the circus in exchange for a story. “Someone needs to tell those tales” the man in the grey suit tells him. “…someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that…There are many kinds of magic, after all.” He talks to Widget about “making the universe more accessible” via magic, but this magic is not something that seems separate from the world but very definitely a part of it. For me, the very best stories are ones that make me, if even for a moment, see things a little differently. Maybe magic is a part of the world. Maybe that child like wonder and mystery and hope are there, too.
There are many kinds of magic, after all.