Let me bring awareness, dear readers, to the fact that this time of the year is one I often dedicate to my favorite novel of all time: The Magicians. I only bring this up at the start of this post because normally, the months of Nov.-Dec. are reserved for the rereading of Lev Grossman’s trilogy due to the ambiance provided by the cold New England weather. A friend of mine and I often trade book recommendations and, with trepidation, I entrusted the series to her. In return, she offered me The Night Circus.
To be honest, I have an aversion to circuses. For some inexplicable reason, I don’t like reading books about them and at first, I wasn’t sure I’d like the novel she gave me. Still, she has recommended a plethora of stunning novels to me this year, so I decided to give it a shot.
Now I understand why everyone is talking/talked about it.
First of all, the writing is gorgeous. The words Morgenstern employs are well chosen and create this effervescent black-white-and-grey world (not in the same way The Giver did but the choice of color was not missed by me). The entire novel is atmospheric and Morgenstern really knows how to make description tantalizing. She reels you into this world and holds you there by enchanted tents and exhibitions and it takes a talented author to engage readers with all the setting descriptions. I couldn’t get enough of them. I mean, one of the tents held a garden made of ice crystals and sculptures. Who doesn’t want to reread that sort of description over and over?
As far as the plot goes, we stumble into a novel whose conflict centers around a challenge between two warring magicians. Two competing magicians each raise a prodigy. The prodigies must eventually battle one another in a setting of the magicians’ choice which, in this novel, ends up being a traveling circus. The rules of the challenge are never completely laid out for the readers or the participants. The pair only knows that they must keep the circus running, that they cannot interfere with the other’s creations in the circus and that, one of them must win at the other’s expense. While the challenge isn’t ever explained in full within the book, I was so distracted by the complete immersion provided by descriptions and the characters, that I didn’t really need to know specifics.
Now, for characters: the pair of main characters and, in fact, all of the performers and circus goers are likewise individually enthralling. It takes a good author to write a few three-dimensional characters and, in this case, Morgenstern creates an entire three-dimensional cast. Everyone has a history both within and before the circus and she does a marvelous job of exploring everyone’s pasts while providing motivations for their future actions. While many have billed this a love story between the two main characters: Celia and Marco, I believe the novel is far more than just a romance. It’s an exploration of sacrifice and wit and bonds that can be forged even within the most unlikely of circumstances. It isn’t just about the pair of lovers, but also about how their relationship effects everyone around them.
Other than the pair of battling magicians, we meet their instructors, both mysterious and tortured souls who have, themselves been so caught up in their competition that they can’t understand the lives they’ve ruined. We meet the circus owner who is blissfully unaware of the ongoing competition although he battles his own demons with alcohol. We meet the reveurs, loyal circus groupies who follow the circus wherever it leads, started by a clock-maker who himself had a role in creating the circus. And finally, we meet Bailey, a young boy whose imagination was stolen at a young age during his first circus attendance and the pair of circus twins who take him under their wings: Poppet and Widget.
While I can’t even begin to describe how intricately woven all the characters’ lives are, I seek to impart the readers with a few quotes. I think The Night Circus functions as a reminder of how important the present is. I think it argues that relationships, no matter how fleeting or of what nature are important to the lives they touch. And I think, above all, the novel touches on interdependence of human life which is telling in its own form. When I closed the book, I felt a similar sense of loss that I experience when reading The Magicians: that of losing an intimate friend.
As one character states at a funeral that occurs during the novel:
“I do not see as well without her. I do not hear as well without her. I do not feel as well without her. I would be better off without a hand or a leg than without her. We have all lost our _____, but I have lost a part of myself as well” (186).
This is the same loss readers suffer when a novel draws to a close. It’s a loss of world and self-identity. It’s a sense of weightlessness and insubstantiality. And I think sometimes we read in order to remember this feeling.
I’ll close this strange review of mine with a quote at the end of the novel. Widget has argued that storytelling in itself lacks power as it merely provides a narrative of the past. However, Mr. A.H., one of the overseeing magicians, states:
“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in it. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose…Your sister may be able to to see the future, but you yourself can shape it” (381).
I agree with the mysterious Mr. A.H. because, in some indescribable way, this novel has left an imprint upon me just as The Magicians touched me years ago when I first read it. And I think, as readers, we need to celebrate the effect that novels such as these can have on us and our seemingly ordinary lives.
Five out of Five stars.