The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

img_5267After having heard -read- about The Night Circus everywhere, I finally got my hands on it and even found my way through my overflowing TBR to open it. The first try, in August, was a false start, though, because at the time, after a long stretch of reading in English, I felt the need to breathe a bit of French air…. So after a few pages in, although already impressed by the exquisite language, I closed it and went for another reading adventure, in my mother tongue. I am happy I finally gave this novel a proper try, because it is something, really.

Here is the blurb, as per the editor’s website, my review follows.

Two starcrossed magicians engage in a deadly game of cunning in The Night Circus,the spellbinding bestseller that has captured the world’s imagination. 

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the challenge Marco and Celia are up to. What are the stakes? What is the purpose? It takes almost the entire novel for some bits of explanations to be given and the mystery to be unveiled. But in the meantime, the reader has plenty to focus on. The Circus itself is explored in much details and through a delightful language. 

“‘What kind of circus is only open at night?’people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet at dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens when the sun sets.”

Morgenstern really takes her time to build the atmosphere, alternating the timelines and perspectives. The intricate narration of Celia and Marco education and subsequent trial alternates with some present tense chapters where the reader is addressed and guided through the dazzling maze of the Circus. 

The novel is quite demanding. In attention and patience I mean. To truly appreciate it, you need to be ready to open your senses and immerge in the experience. The atmosphere is lush, intriguing, intricate and if you are not willing to explore it, and just want to story to move forward, you may feel frustrated. 

It is worth your patience though, in my opinion. The Night Circus is a feast for the imagination and a beautiful exercise of style. I had a delightful time savoring the lovely, precise prose.

“Because I do not wish to know,” he says. “I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark.”

And it is not just the atmosphere and writing, there are actually things happening! Dark, slow, mysterious, but they are happening. There is an unnerving undertone to the novel, a sense of wrong that you cannot exactly pinpoint, a dread that is building in you until tragedies break off. Along the way, we also experience blossoming and thwarted love stories, vocations are discovered and friendships bloom. 

“He hears the echo of a voice assuring him that the man is not real. A figment of his imagination. Nothing but a dream.”

Some may find the ending not entirely satisfying. Either because it is bittersweet or simply because after so much build-up, they feel frustrated. 

“He reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself. And he is not in the position to do any rescuing of his own.”

Interestingly, I loved the bittersweet ending, which is quite rare for me. I think it is partly because I looked at all the protagonists of the Circus with curiosity and not much attachment. They were wonders to decipher, unique people to muse about, fleeting shadows to try to catch, not really characters to bond with. I was interested in them, wanted to know what would happen to them, reacted when life (others) treated them unfairly… but I still kept a kind of distance.

So, Celia and Marco’s bittersweet ending was like another curiosity to analyse and my heart was not too much broken. I am not sure this detachment I felt was what the author intended… But it helped me appreciate the novel in a very different way than what I am used to. I was engrossed in the whole universe, it is the Circus itself,  its lush, vibrant darkness, and the gallery of characters on its whole that made a lasting impression on me, not so much my desire to spend more time with some of the characters.

I guess that is a perfect example of atmospheric reading. I loved how descriptions really evoked sensations and how expertly darkness was conjured up. The book also made me wonder a lot about the inherent malevolence and “folie des grandeurs” of some people compared to the innocence of others and this contrast made my heart tingle a bit at times. 

And personally, I felt like the ends where tied up enough after I turned the last page, but also that the way to get there was sinuous enough, for the resolution not to be the most important part of the novel. We explore so many territories across the pages that we expect the journey to continue and care less about the conclusion.

“I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus. To visit the circus again, if only in their minds, when they are unable to attend it physically. I relay it through printed words on crumpled newsprint, words that they can read again and again, returning to the circus whenever they wish, regardless of time of day or physical location. Transporting them at will.
When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it? “

All in all : this was a unique reading experience, kind of experimental. Read it if you are  interested in dark, rich universes, and patient enough to explore every of their nooks and crannies. It will help that you travel on a boat of beautiful prose and that gloom is stylishly brought about. 


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