REVIEW: The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

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Author: Erin Morgenstern (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Penguin

Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction, romance

 

I have a confession to make.

I lied to my book group and pretended I hadn’t read this book when it came up as a suggestion, because I loved it so much I wanted an excuse to read it again.

It’s a beautiful book. I actually have a beautiful physical hard copy of it somewhere, but I think it’s still in a box, yet to be unpacked following decorating. So I read my ebook instead, which I bought so I didn’t damage my hardback by carting it around the place when I was reading, but the writing itself is beautiful too.

I found out about this book through NaNoWriMo, advertised on the list of published works from the challenge, although I understand this was written across several NaNo events, and then significantly tweaked afterwards. The latter piece of information is extremely reassuring, because after reading it I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the quality of nonsense I’ve churned out during NaNo.

The piece is set through the latter half of the 1800s, and the early 1900s, and follows Le Cirque du Rêves, a black and white circus that travels the world, opening only at night. The circus is the setting for a magical contest between Celia, the circus’s illusionist, and Marco, assistant to the circus’s producer. Pitted against each other by their mentors, they are challenged to out-do each other in skill and power, creating illusions and effects and making the circus more magical than could have been imagined. However, the nature of the contest is not clear – there is no indication to how the winner will be chosen, or what the consequences of losing are. As the contest progresses, it becomes clear that it is not only Celia and Marco who are trapped within it, but everyone involved with the circus. Things become more difficult when Celia and Marco fall in love.

I have read accusations that this book is more style than substance, and does not stand up to re-reads. I don’t think that’s fair. The book is very stylish, and certainly the setting has been chosen more for the aesthetic than perhaps for any plot reasons, but the aesthetic makes the book what it is. It’s absorbing and so visual, the circus and styles are as much of a character as Celia and Marco.

Perhaps the other reason for the setting is the social mores which existed at the time. In a contemporary book, the societal manners would make the story progress very differently – the character dynamics would change, the plot would move at a different speed. And in an electronic world you would lose some of the mystery of the magic.

It has been interesting, on what is now my third reading, the things which I am noticing. What I remembered from previous readings, and what is a delightful surprise again. I am very much looking forward to hearing what the rest of my book group thought of it after their first reading. I am particularly enjoying the darker elements of the story, seeing the collateral to the contest explored. I always thought this was a wonderful touch to add a further dimension to the story, however on this reading I can see that this is less dark and perhaps more bittersweet. There is little recrimination or anger for the impact this has on people, just a sadness.

Something I have noticed, on reflection, on this read, is that for such a large cast there is an awful lot of white characters. There are 13 named presumed white characters who progress the plot, compared to the 2 explicitly identified BAME characters. And of those two, Chandresh is the only one with a significant arc – Tsukiko is mostly consigned to making cryptic statements and appearing to know more than she should. This lack of diversity is also true of other books I have reviewed – The Dark Days Club has no BAME characters, and The Raven Cycle only has two who are explicitly BAME, and one of those is only introduced in the later books – however it strikes me as odd for such a large ensemble cast that the representation is so small. The Raven Cycle and The Dark Days Club are also set in much smaller societies, with smaller casts. The Night Circus is global. It travels around the world, and we are led to believe has a huge cast of performers. It seems strange that the focus is mostly on European or North American locations, and on Caucasian characters.

Perhaps that goes to emphasise, as with the timeline, that the aesthetic is more the focus than the practicalities. I still think this is a good book – I have read it three times; bought it twice, once in hard copy and once as an ebook – but as I bring my own new experiences to each reading I notice new things, and perhaps more consideration to a broader world could have made it a better book. A more rounded one.

Briefly:

  • Elegantly presented fantasy romance, written so evocatively that images stay with you. It is a very well done aesthetic storytelling.
  • Interwoven timelines, with elements told out of chronological order before being drawn together at the end, allows for excellent foreshadowing, and is excellent use of a different narrative structure.
  • Stands up to several re-reads, and it is easy to read. It has taken me two weeks of leisurely reading to complete. It would be a perfect holiday book.
  • I really enjoy a slow burn love story, and this is definitely that.

 

Rating: 5/5 – whilst I have mentioned that this is not a perfect book, I have been happily able to read it several times.

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