Erin Morgenstern’s debut is being heralded with a considerable amount of hype, which is something that tends to make me instinctively sceptical. It would unfair, though, to feel entirely that way towards The Night Circus, which is every bit as generous with its imaginative vision as the hype promises. Where the novel falls short is in providing the support structure to bring that vision fully to life.
The starting-point for the tale is New York in 1873, where Hector Bowen (who uses the stage name ‘Prospero the Enchanter’) takes delivery of a five-year-old girl who turns out to be his daughter Celia, and to share his talent for magic – real magic, that is (Hector disguises his abilities as stagecraft). Later that year, the newest round of an old game begins, as Hector and his great rival – a mysterious grey-suited man known only as Alexander – each choose a champion; Hector’s is Celia, whilst Alexander trains up a boy who takes the name Marco Alisdair. The venue for the contest will be Le Cirque des Rêves, a travelling show founded by one Chand resh Christophe Lefèvre; Marco becomes Lefèvre’s assistant in managing the circus, and Celia Le Cirque’s illusionist. Over the years, the two compete to ouitdo the other in displays of enchantment; though things get complicated when each discovers their opponent’s identity, and love blossoms.
The Night Circus (both the novel and the fictional attraction) contains a plethora of fantastical phenomena – from the eerie white bonfire to a garden made of ice – with the potential to captivate patrons and readers alike. However, the book often seems to be trusting that the sheer fact of what’s being described will create a feeling of wonder, rather than using choice turns of phrase to bolster it. Morgenstern’s prose is not inert, but I don’t find many places where it truly fizzes, either. The brief interludes that take us on a second-person journey through the circus generally have a higher success rate than the main text; not all the vignettes work as well as each other, but their brevity, and that they show us the circus from the outside in, tends to give them an intensity of vision that I’d like to have experienced more frequently.
The book’s approach to the supernatural plays a part in this, I think. In the opening encounter between Hector and Celia, Morgenstern describes matter-of-factly how the two of them smash and restore a cup of tea through magical means; this sets a tone for the rest of the novel of magic being normalised, made familiar (for the main characters, of course, that’s exactly what magic is). This is fine as a technique, but it works against the creation of wonder and mystery – and, with the book’s fairytale tone, it’s for wonder and mystery that The Night Circus is really striving.
Morgenstern’s approach to characterisation is broad-brush (perhaps not inappropriately, given her novel’s fairytale quality), and not entirely successful. The portrayal of Celia’s and Marco’s burgeoning love walks the line between being properly affecting and overly sentimental, and sometimes steps the wrong side of that line. More effective overall is the subplot set in 1902 (and which joins with the main storyline at the novel’s climax), wherein Bailey Clarke, a boy from Massachusetts, becomes fascinated with the circus, and in particular with one of the young performers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the best-realised scenes in the novel involve either Bailey or other characters from outside the immediate ambit of Le Cirque; again, I come back to the idea that the strangeness of magic is best evoked from the viewpoint of those unfamiliar with it.
My fellow-book-blogger William Rycroft commented on Twitter that The Night Circus would make a good film; he’s absolutely right, because this is a novel whose images would benefit from interpreted more strongly. As it is, the book certainly has the vision, if not quite the words to do it justice.