Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: The Night Circus

It's rare that a book's atmosphere overshadows its plot, but in Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus, I found myself caring less about what was happening and more about where it was happening. Specifically, the night circus of the title, Le Cirque des Rêves.

Le Cirque des Rêves rolls into town unannounced, sets up without fanfare, and opens its gates at dusk. It is exquisitely detailed, every inch of it black or white, and is filled with tents that boggle the mind or tear at our sense of possibility. Explore all you want - there's always more to see.

The plot itself is interesting, too, although it is overshadowed by what feels like the main character, the circus. The story begins with two master magicians and a bet. Each magician chooses a student - Celia and Marco, in this instance, although the bet has been played out by these two magicians before - and teaches them all they need to know in order to win the game they're playing. The game, though, is never explained to the students, and they are left filling in the details for themselves as they go.

Add to that a plot about a boy, Bailey, who first encounters the circus as a child, then comes across it again as a man deciding whether to take on the family business or strike out on his own. At first, the story jumps back and forth between these two plot lines, but of course, they begin to converge.

Like I said, though, the atmosphere of the book mattered so much more to me than the actual plot. Sure, I was interested in the story behind the circus and how the game between Celia and Marco was to be played out, but when I finally got to the ending, I didn't care much anymore. I was just upset to see my journey with the circus end.

Truth be told, I was not entirely happy with the climax of the book as I was reading it. It felt a bit rushed and out of place. When I read it, I thought it might have ruined an otherwise beautiful book. It's been a little while since I finished the book, though, and I'm coming to terms with the ending. In hindsight, it seems right and just - and the only way to keep the circus alive, which is just how I want it.

Besides my out-right love for the atmosphere of the book, I also have to commend Morgenstern on her use of tenses and perspectives. The main narrative is told in the present tense - something that many writers try and fail terribly at. Instead, its use makes the story feel urgent, a big feat for a story that spans over 30 years. Interspersed throughout the narrative are short chapters written in the second person (still present tense), offering glimpses of the circus as a visitor would see it (Example: "You cannot bear to watch. You cannot look away."). I loved how each of these, usually only a page long, pulled me deeper into the world of the circus. Perhaps this is why I felt the atmosphere was the strongest character.

There's been a lot of hype around this book, most of it just, but the comparisons as "the next Harry Potter" or to Twilight are all wrong. In fact, I got in an argument with a coworker over whether to shelve this in our bookstore's Young Adult section or not (the correct answer is no, but I let the coworker keep a couple in her display anyway). Also, apparently the Wall Street Journal thinks three stories written over 20-something years makes a trend? Just forget anything you've read about The Night Circus (other than that it is GOOD) and form your own opinions on it.

Buy The Night Circus on Amazon
Buy The Night Circus from an indie bookshop near you through Indie Bound

5/5 stars

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