Book Review: The Circus of Dreams

A book review of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

At the entrance to the Night Circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, stands a curious clock. By night,

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played…

By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.

The clock, crafted by a devotee of the Cirque des Rêves, is an apt metaphor for Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus. Like the clock, the book is composed of intricate, interlocking pieces that create a magical, captivating whole.

Set in the late 19th century in various cities around the world, The Night Circus is the story of a challenge imposed on two innocent children by the rival, egomaniacal magicians who are their guardians. The children, Celia and Marcus, grow up isolated, unaware of one another, joylessly studying and practicing magic in preparation for a contest whose rules are never explained to them. All they know is that they will have to compete with someone whom they will not know, in places, times, and circumstances unknown to them, and that it is most crucial that they win. No questions are permitted.

Naturally, they are destined to fall in love.

The Night Circus is also the story of the mysterious Cirque des Rêves, a marvel that arrives in any town without warning, its black and white striped tents suddenly rising on an empty field, filled with performances that range from the delightful to the impossible. The founders of Cirque des Rêves are another portion of the clockwork, an exclusive supper club of uniquely talented people who each contribute their gifts to the creation and expansion of the circus. But as much joy and wonder as the circus creates for thousands, it exacts a steep price from each of the founders. Magic, like everything else in the world, is not free.

The fans of the circus, who call themselves the Rêveurs, are another component of the clockwork. They follow the Cirque des Rêves wherever it is rumored to appear next, clothed in the black and white of the circus, with a spot of red to show that they dwell in the world outside of it. Some Rêveurs find themselves so involved that their destinies become entwined with the circus and its creators. One, an American boy named Bailey, who falls in love with the circus and with one of its lovely performers when he is just a child, finds that the fate of the circus and all who inhabit it depend on a decision that he has only a few hours to make.

Once Morgenstern establishes the world of her story, she constantly raises the stakes for her characters. Even the sweetest illusions Celia and Marcus create for their competition hold the seeds of their own destruction; and the terrible truth about their magical contest, revealed gradually over the final third of the book, seems to leave no room at all for a happy resolution. Like her creations, Morgenstern keeps tight control of her powerful illusions, although occasional lapses in diction are distracting.

The story shifts back and forth in time, from one continent to another, from one interwoven plotline to another, yet moves as flawlessly as Herr Thiessen’s gorgeous clock. I read the book like an awed Rêveur, enchanted by the trick, yet wondering how a first-time novelist had pulled it off so successfully. And like them, I fell in love with this genre-bending, dreamlike, intensely pleasurable creation, seduced by the magic of the circus.

Julie Goldberg blogs at Perfect Whole. She is working on her first novel.


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