“The circus arrives without warning; it is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
In her enchanting tale of dark magic and desperate longing, Morgenstern pulls you into an intriguing world which blurs the line between reality and fantasy.
Set in the late 19th and early 20th century, the novel follows the captivating and complicated lives of Celia Bowen, Marco Alisdair and Bailey. Celia is the daughter of the illustrious Prospero the Enchanter, a famous illusionist, who from childhood has trained her for a mysterious challenge she must undertake; a challenge involving magic. Born with the ability to move objects with her mind and conjure animals out of thin air, she herself becomes an enthralling illusionist. Yet the nature and rules of the challenge are unclear: firstly, who is to be her opponent?
Marco Alisdair is an unsuspecting young man, plucked from a bleak orphanage by his instructor, the elusive Mr A. H. Similarly trained in the arts of ancient symbols, runes and magic he is confined to late Victorian London, unsure of when his challenge will take place. It is only when he is invited – along with a curious team of performers, architects and acrobats – to one of Chandresh LeFèvre’s midnight dinners, that the arena begins to form for his challenge. Le Cirque de Rêves.
The Circus of Dreams is an ambitious endeavour: open only at night, coloured only in black and white and full of an ancient magic tangible to its reverent yet unsuspecting visitors, it becomes the venue for the great task. The rules of the game are unclear, but both opponents are to use the circus to showcase their magical skill, adding tents more and more fantastical to prove the scope of their enchanting abilities.
Travelling around the world for decades, arriving suddenly in a field one day and disappearing the next, Le Cirque de Rêves soon becomes a global fascination. Adoring patrons, entranced by its magic, begin to follow the circus from city to city, appropriately known as “Les Rêveurs” – the dreamers. Their founder, Herr Thiessen, is a world-renowned clock-maker, himself completing the mechanical masterpiece that fronts the gates of the circus. Yet despite its alluring appeal, the Circus holds an undercurrent of foreboding, a sense that all is not quite what it seems.
Bailey, a humble American farmer’s son, is one of the many patrons captivated by the Circus. From the illusionist, to the fortune teller, to the Cloud Maze and the Wishing Tree to the Ice Garden, the Circus is an endless spiral of wonderment and fascination; there is always more to be explored. Yet an endeavour that once started as a dare sets in a motion an unstoppable chain of events, rendering him inexplicably tied to the Circus in ways he can never understand.
Written as cleverly and intricately as the Circus is itself, Morgenstern’s novel is a wonderful exploration of the limits of magic and fantasy. Sectioned into five main parts, with varied narration throughout, her technique allows the reader to understand the Circus from all aspects: its workers, patrons and admirers. Spanning over 60 years it is an ambitious tale of love, loss and magic, incomparable to most books you find on the worn shelves of your local Oxfam!
Though the narrative is occasionally hard to follow (the novel frequently jumps from different years and to different cities, so ensure you read the chapter subtitles!), it provides the book with a quick pace that keeps the action moving along. Filled with magnificent descriptive passages and fantastical otherworldly concepts, it is an admirable work of Morgernstern’s brilliant imagination and a refreshing escape from reality.
I would sincerely recommend this book as an enchanting portal into another world, perfect for cosy winter nights when going outside is a remote possibility and studying isn’t the preferred activity. Author Téa Obreht encapsulates it perfectly:
‘The Night Circus pulls you into a world as dark as it is dazzling. You will not want to leave it.”