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The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern

Premise: Against the backdrop of a luscious 19th century world, Celia Bowden, daughter of Prospero the Enchanter is trained to become a ‘real’ magician. Her father nominates her as his champion in a mysterious competition. Her only rival is Marco Alisdair who has been plucked from obscurity by an anonymous man in a grey suit. The nature and rules of the competition are left unclear except that it involves demonstrating superior magical skill. Their playground is Le Cirque des Rêves, a spectacular travelling circus that appears out of nowhere, unscheduled and unannounced. Whilst the two young magicians battle and enchant each other in equal measure, a boy called Bailey dreams of running away to join the circus.

If I was asked to name my top ten favourite books of all time, I would certainly struggle. How do you compare Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”? In a dark mood, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” might make it onto the list whereas in a happier vein, I might include Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. It would probably be an impossible task (as all such subjective, mood-reliant tasks are) but “The Night Circus” would definitely be a novel that would, for me, be worthy of consideration. Rarely does a book live up its title page credentials. In this case, though, ‘dazzling’ and ‘enchanting’ just about sum up how I feel about the story. It is a novel that really elevates the fantasy genre to another level.

One of the things that I admire about Morgenstern’s writing is how visual it is. On the first page, the circus is described as “black and white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colourless world.” Throughout, the narrative sings with inventive descriptive passages – of the Victorian cityscapes, of the characters’ features, of the magic produced by Celia and Marco – and Morgenstern’s background as a multimedia artist shines through in the way she visualises her world. One reviewer in the Guardian talks about disliking fantasy fiction and being put off by books that seem like ‘a film in the making’ but says she was won over by the way Morgenstern creates “a world of illusion more real than that of many a realist fiction.”

The story is perhaps quite straight-forward but the way it is told lends itself to the general sense of enchantment. There are descriptive tableaus that walk you (in second person) through the many aspects of the circus splashed in little interludes throughout the novel. There are quotations from Friedrick Thiessen (who is an aficionado of the circus) peppered alongside quotes from Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare. The narrative is told from multiple viewpoint characters and the story-telling is at times non-linear. All of this creates a rich tapestry that pulls you into this phantasmagorical world.

Novels that Morgenstern cites as inspiring her writing: “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (Susanna Clarke), “The Prestige” (Christopher Priest), “Einstein’s Dreams” (Alan Lightman) + Dickens, Shakespeare, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey

Other novel by Erin Morgenstern: “The Starless Sea”