“We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams around from place to place.”
Five-year-old Celia Bowen arrives at the doorstep of the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter, claiming blood ties as his daughter. Discovering her knack for shifting objects with her mind, he takes her in and begins training her, bringing her along on his travels and performances around the world.
Marco Alisdair is plucked from an orphanage in London by a man in a grey suit, and his skills of manipulation and creating illusions are developed over time and countless pages of books.
A challenge is put forth. The players are assembled. The Circus their playing field. Separated by lands and oceans, Celia and Marco are bound to each other in a way they both do not understand, and it is only when they meet and tumble into a love tied to their fates does the game begin to make sense and the world unravels.
To me, The Night Circus is first and foremost a story about dreams and the cost of chasing after them. It is about people who are determined to re-write pre-determined fates, and create a future solely their own. While the story revolves mainly around Celia and Marco, it also focuses on the lives of the people in the Circus and those who long to be a part of it. Each of these characters carry their dreams and their heart on their sleeve, and pursue them with such earnestness and child-like determination. The book is filled with complex characters that are each given space to develop as well as conceal as they wish, and they greet readers with a delightful sense of both innocence and ancient wisdom. I loved the cast of characters that played a part in crafting the mysterious tone of the book. They work hand in hand with the Circus as stories to wander through and discover page by page.
I absolutely love the tone of writing that takes me back to a time of bowler hats and canes and fancy dresses. The Victorian era and steampunk theme is so well intertwined with every word presented that the world jumps right off the page for me. There was a lot of attention to detail of not just the clothes and furniture, but mannerisms as well.
Celia is presented as both gentle and composed, as well as strong-willed and determined. She holds herself with such dignity and class that inspires me as a lady. I also love the description of her dresses with all its textures, fabrics and ribbons. Despite her being quite withdrawn and quiet, I love the glimpses of her mischievousness and madness, such as when she stabs her own hand in front of Marco only to heal it before his eyes.
As for Marco, well. I don’t think I’ve encountered an introverted male protagonist I didn’t fall for. His character is revealed more through his dialogue than descriptions of him, and even then, he proved to be an earnest, stable, solid force in the Circus and as a person. He is passionate about everything he does and so passionately in love with Celia that it makes my soul ache. Some of my favorite parts of the novel have to be descriptions of his various living quarters, and the chaos of many, many books that are a constant feature. I can just imagine him, awake at un-Godly hours, ink-stained fingers scribbling plans into his journals by candlelight.
“Everything I have done, every change I have made to that circus, every impossible feat and astounding sight, I have done for her.”
The descriptions of the actual Circus are fantastical. I love the variety of tents and attractions that Morgenstern has imagined up for us. Even circus snacks and smells are given a respectable moment to shine, and often times I find myself craving a cider or chocolate coated anything while reading.
What makes this novel stand out more than it’s whimsical language is it’s use of first, second and third-person accounts. It is mostly written in present tense, which at first unsettles in its rare appearance in books, but gives readers a sense of being right in the midst of the plot whilst living several decades away – as the novel takes place in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. This corresponds with Celia and Marco’s relationship as two entities who, even when together, are separated by the game. It brings to mind John Keat’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which laments of lovers who are forever frozen in the moment right before they kiss, their lips never touching. It is an image that tortures and tugs so very bittersweetly on one’s heartstrings, and this feeling is presented to readers through their very relationship as a reader to a book. While they read, they are brought right into the middle of the scene and yet can never forget that they are simultaneously at the edge, barely holding on to it all, merely grasping at a page of a book.
The semi-voyeuristic effect pairs together with the cryptic edge of Morgenstern’s writing to enhance the mystery of the entire novel. Journeying through the words will recreate the feeling of visiting a circus – there is always an air of mystery and concealment. This is further perpetuated through the first, second and third person narrative. The novel is mostly presented in third-person, however at times addresses the reader and takes us through areas in the Circus. Also cleverly interjected between chapters are first person “newspaper clippings” from a significant character in the novel that describe his feelings for the Circus. All of this comes together to present a unique reading experience that takes us on a magical journey from the first to the last page.
Overall, I absolutely adored The Night Circus. It was magical, whimsical, cryptic, heartbreaking and hopeful. The last few chapters will grip you as an already invested reader and shatter your heart before putting it back together. My only problem with the novel would be that unlike in the story, my memory can’t be erased to experience reading it for the first time all over again. I have only the bittersweet aftertaste to accompany me on many, many more re-reads of this fantastical book.
“You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.
You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”