Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, Vintage, 2012
My initial reaction to The Night Circus was one of wild enthusiasm. Just like a young, wide-eyed spectator embarked on a magical tour, I was enthralled by the colours, the shapes and movements, by all the sounds and smells of the circus. “A feast of the senses,” the book, typically self-reflective, says of the Night Circus. Not only did the richness of the descriptions fascinate me, making me gasp at the breadth and depth of the author’s imagination, but also the elaborateness of the narrative, moving backwards and forwards in time, shifting in and out of the story and switching from first to second then to third person narrative.
There is no doubt that Erin Morgenstern’s magic worked on me. I was hopelessly hooked on the beautiful, ephemeral world of the Night Circus, wishing it would last for ever. Only when that world began to unravel and the illusions crumple, leaving me feeling bereft and equally unravelled, did I realise how much the book had swayed me.
One thing troubled me, however. A minor thing, maybe, but worrying all the same. I listened to the book in an excellent audio rendering by Jim Dale. Periodically I found my thoughts wandering, unable to remain with the story. I set myself to pondering why that should be. As a result, my enthusiasm gave way to a more wary ambivalence.
The book, like the Night Circus that it describes, is one continuous breath-taking illusion, as if the story and all that is related to it, was pulled from a hat, and in that monumental slight of hand, it becomes strangely insubstantial and disconnected, and us, as readers, with it. The form of the novel seeks to reflect the illusion of the circus itself and, like with the illusionist’s performance, we as readers are not sure if it is mastery or trickery or both.
The author seeks to engage the reader by anticipating his or her reactions, substituting herself for the reader by using the ‘you’ form and describing our reactions to the circus in a way that echoes the performance of the illusionist who manipulates spectators’ perceptions to make them see what she wants. But do we let ourselves be manipulated? The author also evokes the growth of a large and faithful following of the circus as if to conjure up, by association, something similar for the book, involving the reader in anticipation of the book’s success and suggesting how that might feel.
The narration attempts to embarks us, not so much by what happens to the characters, but rather by the intensity of the descriptions of strange and wonderful scenes. Coming as a string of exquisite cameos of the circus, these scenes, delightful and captivating as they are, rarely have anything to do with the characters and, if characters do appear in them, those people are a support for the circus, rather than the circus being the context in which the characters evolve. If a story is seen as the trials and tribulations of a number of characters, most of this book distracts from the story. It is possible that therein lies the book’s greatest slight of hand and its greatest weakness, as a story at least.
One of the outcomes of preferring the weird and wonderful of the circus, and binding the characters to that spectacular world, rather than letting them grow and develop in their own right, is that the intense emotions they experience reach us distorted and diluted, making that young man and woman seem unattainable. In comparison, the parallel story of the two twins born at the inception of the circus and their growing relationship to an outsider named Bailey, is far more touching and heart rending than all the trumpeted fears and doubts and passions of the two main characters.
Postscriptum. Having listened to the Night Circus a second time, I can only say the story is stimulating on so many different levels that any reserves I might have expressed above pale in its brilliance. Erin Morgenstern is a genius.