“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it… It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern is, without a doubt, the book I recommend most to others. They post on Facebook, twitter, tumblr or wherever, “What should I read next?” and I reply, “The Night Circus.” If I had to narrow it down to just one reason, I’d say it’s a beautiful book, but that doesn’t seem quite right. The hardcover copy is gorgeous; the tent even has a different texture than the rest of the jacket. The lining is a rich black and white stripe and the constellation illustrations throughout the book are charming.
We all know the cover of the book isn’t supposed to matter, but in this case, it supports Morgenstern’s beautiful depiction of the circus. The physical book seems to be an incarnation of the circus itself and it’s one of the few new books I made the effort to procure a real copy of. The core narrative is this: two magicians raise a boy (Marco) and a girl (Celia) respectively to compete as their proteges in an ongoing, ostensibly magical, competition. What exactly they’re competing for or what they are meant to do to win, or what might happen when someone does win, is all somewhat hazy. The only thing that’s clear is the venue in which they are to compete: The Night Circus, le Cirque des Rêves.
The story itself revolves around the creation and eventual travels of the circus, with a supporting cast of characters that come off with remarkable depth, considering the book is only 387 pages long. The main story, is that of Marco and Celia and how they affect the circus and one another. The circus and the competition take center stage as Marco and Celia blindly create one illusion after another, and eventually the competition that has no known rules unwittingly becomes a collaboration.
Woven in with the main story of the competition are a fistful of other narratives that contribute to the final outcome of the story, but make the journey to the end a twisty path. Luckily, the characters that populate those narratives are easy to care for; though you may not be quite sure how they fit in, you’re invested in how things turn out for them. Tsukiko, the contortionist, is a particular favorite for me.
I’ve heard the complaint that The Night Circus is difficult to follow, and I agree that the way the story unfolds is complicated; the story itself is complex and mysterious, so there’s a lot of layers. I’ll be honest, it’s a book that needs to be read twice: once to get the circus firmly embedded in your imagination and another to let the actual story sink in. I posit that though the novel describes a somewhat dark, magical competition and its results, the most compelling aspect of the book is the circus itself.
For me, The Night Circus is an exercise in imagination, le Cirque des Rêves is a place I go to in daydreams. Its stark black and white palette, punctuated by a shot of red here and there, the magical fire at its center, the ever-changing tents, it’s all there for me, thanks to Morgenstern’s generous and lush descriptions.
I am, in short, a rêveur, one of the novel’s best creations. Rêveurs are circus lovers who hunt down the elusive Cirque and make every attempt to visit it throughout their lives. Were the circus a real phenomenon, I would happily follow it to the ends of the earth. You’d find me in a long black coat and a red silk scarf ducking in and out of tents at every stop the circus makes. Much like Narnia and Hogwarts, I keep my eye out for le Cirque des Rêves, always hoping it will turn out to be real.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher, a cat herder, a dogmom and tea drinker. She’s probably busy trying to slather butter on toast and read another chapter from a library book at the same time. She’s a terrible multi-tasker and her hair is almost always a mess. You can visit her on twitter or at her website if you want to check in.