Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), as imagined by Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus is both real and imaginary at once, an illusion that tempts all the senses and mesmerizes its patrons (and readers) with a seemingly endless array of curiosities and spectacles. It is a circus unlike any other. It appears and disappears in the night, and is only open from dusk to dawn. Everything in it, down to the dirt on the ground, is rendered in shades of black and white. Its marvels include contortionists and mazes and blooming gardens of ice. But Le Cirque des Rêves is not just a circus; it is a battleground. The story opens with two aged magicians each choosing a child as a champion, each of them to be set against each other in some mysterious ‘challenge’. Le Cirque des Rêves is the arena.
Like the circus Morgenstern describes, her novel is an astonishing feat of magic. If J.K. Rowling and Steven King (both influences cited by Morgenstern) collaborated on a novel, the result might feel like this. Immediately reminiscent of Harry Potter, with young sorcerers as protagonists, it quickly morphs into something completely original. It is both dark and light, as is the concept of a circus that shines in the night, but there is no childish demarcation of good or bad here. Those lines are blurred, and the reader is immersed in the grayness of the in-between. Morgenstern’s vision is more subtle than good and evil, she aims instead to pit passion against apathy, idealism against calculated effort for personal gain, and, of course, love against anything that might stand in its way.
The Night Circus is so deep and gorgeous – so wildly imaginative – it took my breath away. The fantastic details that Morgenstern uses to paint this very vivid and strange world are like tiny jewels on a Fabergé egg – a perfect world in miniature. Morgenstern seems to know instinctively how to use words to create the very atmosphere within which the circus and its characters live. The scenes and language Morgenstern uses to paint them are evocative of dark streets and pools of lamplight and slithering things just out of sight. The sense of wonder is there, but so, too, is the sense of spectacle, and the sense that just underneath all of the showmanship is a rotting corpse, a stinking thing that we are all afraid to look at.
Morgenstern is relatively young, and this is her first novel. At 34 years old, her writing is hip, edgy, and dark. The Night Circus is a joy to read, and would be appropriate for young adults, as well as the rest of us, although the darkness that simmers below the surface might be lost on the youngest reader. Fall under the spell of The Night Circus – it’s worth the price of admission.