Book Review: “The Night Circus” (2011) by Erin Morgenstern

nightcircus

Cover art.

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Now that National Novel Writing Month has officially kicked off, I thought it might be nice to take a look at a novel that started out as a NaNoWriMo project and later became an international bestseller. In 2011 Erin Morgenstern wrote in her NaNo pep talk:

The circus was my variation on the wise and ancient NaNo wisdom: when in doubt, just add ninjas. I had this plodding, Edward Gorey-esque thing with mysterious figures in fur coats being mysterious and doing very little else. I got tremendously bored with it because nothing was happening so I sent the otherwise boring characters to a circus. And it worked. I ended up tossing that beginning and focusing purely on the circus. An imaginary location I created out of desperation expanded and changed and became its own story over many non-November months of revisions and more revisions and now it is all grown-up and book-shaped and published and bestselling. And it all started with NaNoWriMo.

Brilliant. Bring on the metaphorical ninjas!

First, I would like to point out that this book has one of the best opening sentences I have read in a long time:

The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.

A+ 10/10 five stars.

Who is the little girl? Why was she sent to him? Whose suicide note is pinned to her coat? And who is this man anyway, if Prospero is not his real name? That opener had me hooked instantly – I had to find out what was going on. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to a world of wonder with a deadly competition between two rivals at its centre.

(Side note: I wonder how many magicians haved used the stage name Prospero over the course of the last couple of centuries.)

For me, the most impressive trick this book pulled on me was make me forget all that and believe that the circus can be a place of awe and wonder. I was never a big fan of the circus as a child; I didn’t care for clowns and their slapstick, I felt sorry for the animals, and watching the acrobats pull off risky stunts only reminded me of how many bones I had already managed to break at such a young age (I have had my arms and ankles X-rayed more times than I care to admit). However, the night circus is not a gaudy, loud mess, but a sophisticated and carefully styled experience that takes the visitors’ breath away. In fact, if I had to use one word to describe this book, it would have to be “enchanting.” Reading it actually feels a lot like stepping through a curtain and discovering a magical circus behind it. Morgenstern does not just introduce us to all the different tents, but points out all the remarkable little details. The way the characters dress, the notebooks they use to jot down ideas for new creations, absolutely everything is thought out. It is a fantastic bit of worldbuilding, and for days after I’d finished the book, my imagination was running wild. The circus is not just a location; it is the novel’s main character.

The downside of enchantment is that it’s all superficial; when you peel away the magic of the circus, what we’re left with is an interesting idea for a story that never quite reaches its full potential because of how flat the characters are. This is what ended up knocking down my final verdict to a three-star rating. After all, it’s a bit of a problem when the novel’s resolution revolves around a pair of doomed lovers, and I can’t bring myself to care if they’ll get together or not. I will say that the more I thought about it, the more fitting it seemed. The key is to think of The Night Circus as a traditional fairy tale; its characters are all archetypes with a specific role to play (the Mentor, the Star-Crossed Lovers, the Architect). This is a book about magic, not people. Its main goal is to create a sparkly mystery that will leave you wanting more, and on that front it succeeds with flying colours. What happens to the characters is almost irrelevant; we just need them to create and react to the magic in question. The only thing that really matters is the circus. However, it does mean that the book lacks that emotional punch that would have kept it from eventually feeling hollow at the centre. As spectacular as certain aspects are, it could have been a lot more.

Perhaps this rating seems harsh considering how positive the rest of the review is, but personally, I need strong characters to really lose myself in a book. There were times where it felt like The Night Circus dragged a bit, and that’s where a good character arc will keep you turning the page. If you care about their arc and what happens to them, you will be much more forgiving of the occasional dawdling. The last thing you want in a book that is all about dazzling the reader is a point where the story becomes a bit of a dud. Remember how Morgenstern said that she struggled to write for her “otherwise boring” characters, but everything was solved when she sent them to the circus? Yeah.

For my part, I’ll be counting the days until Bryan Fuller gets his hands on the rights and adapts The Night Circus into a dazzling mini series – like a less messy version of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, perhaps. Just think what kind of visuals a talented director could create from this source material! Would it ever live up to the picture I’ve created in my head? Probably not, but I’d love to watch someone who is not Tim Burton try.


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