Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

When everyone started going wild about The Night Circus, something about the way the book was described didn’t quite appeal to me. I wasn’t really in the mood for great literary romance and while the concept intrigued me, it wasn’t enough to make me pick up a copy, even though it came recommended by a lot of people I really love and respect. I kept making a note to read it at some point because it was getting so much attention, but it was very much on the back corner of my top shelf, mentally.

Yes, I totally judged a book by its cover. I kept picking it up, reading the flap copy, and putting it down again. So when I was at the bookstore and noticed that it had just come out in paperback, I shrugged and decided to pick up a copy. It sat at the bottom of my to-read pile of dead tree books, and when I finished the book above it, I switched to my to-read in my ereader. Finally I was out of everything else, and I picked up The Night Circus.

Several hours later, I realised it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t put this fucking book down. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to gobble it up all in one night because then there wouldn’t be any more of it to read, so I forced myself to stop and try to get some sleep. Throughout the next day, all I wanted to do was pick it up and start reading again. I canceled all social engagements to read this book, not that my social schedule is a hotbed of events, but every now and then I have a flash of sociability and I was having one then. Until I started reading The Night Circus, anyway.

The Night Circus sucked me in and I couldn’t stop marveling at every page. It’s so tightly, deliciously constructed, and it also breaks all the ‘rules’ set forth for writing in a way that I absolutely loved. It’s hard to do this well, because first you need to understand your craft very, very well, in order to see how you can safely violate conventions.

It didn’t feel precious or contrived, like Morgenstern was trying too hard. It felt perfect. She worked on this project for years and it showed in the meticulously crafted detail; this was an example of a book that needed to be slowly and gently ripened on the tree before being carefully handpicked, because being too hasty would have made the whole thing collapse.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it starts with a challenge between two magicians. Each must train a student and the students are to compete in a series of complex, evolving challenges. They create a spectacle, the Night Circus, to use as the venue for the challenges, which are not your mama’s magical confrontations. The students trade shots in the form of spectacular and amazing attractions inside the circus tents, integrating magic into displays ranging from an ice garden to a display of illusions that, unlike magic tricks in ordinary life, are real.

And over time, they come to know each other deeply through their magic, and to know each other as people. Inevitably, they grow intertwined with each other, and the challenge becomes one of cooperation instead of competition. They know their minds and the feel of their magic and the structure of the challenge has drawn them extremely close together. Their mentors are infuriated, but they of course have a card up their sleeves; the challenge doesn’t end until someone dies and the other becomes the winner.

Faced with the impossible, they’re forced to attempt the improbable.

The Night Circus opens with a prologue, narrated in the second person. Right there, Morgenstern breaks two rules, and you’d better get used to it, because she’s going to keep doing it throughout the book, and you’re going to like it. You are, really. And you’re going to like the story, which is a fairytale infused with magical realism and humanity and something somewhat ineffable and delicious.

Morgenstern’s writing is, as I described it to my father, rich. Every scene is vividly, crisply described in lush prose and she’s not afraid to play with language and push it to the limit. The characters come to life on every page and so do the things they touch and interact with. In a world where magic infuses everything, magical prose is critical as a narrative vehicle to keep you in the story without yanking you away. When Celia changes her dress in her audition, you can see it rising up from the page, and you can feel the heavy sense of strangeness. When Marco writes in his book, you can smell it and feel it and see it, sense the scratching of pen on the page.

When I finished the book, I was so angry that I was done that I turned it right over and started it again, lingering over every little detail. Morgenstern herself is almost like a character in the novel, with the ability to capture stories and suck you in to them with her evocative and haunting language. The Night Circus takes the reader on a journey that changes the structure of the mind, and it’s definitely in my contender list for book of the year. I know I already said that about The Fault in Our Stars, but The Night Circus is really, really good, you guys.