Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (London: Harvill Secker, 2011)

Alternatively titled: The Night Circus, and some rambling on other readerly-writerly subjects, including the thorny maze of Disagreement.

The Night Circus Cover Image
Source: Google

I was highly surprised and disappointed to discover, on looking up this book on Goodreads to gather some general opinions for this review to consider, that so many people had something negative to say about it. As you know, from the simple fact that I am reviewing it, I love it – and I would recommend it highly. I will never review something that I wouldn’t recommend – that would be an entirely pointless for you and for me.

As many complaints as these people had, I was reassured to discover that the objections did not sour my own opinion of it, as can happen, and has done before (Twilight syndrome, anyone?). The avenues of thought I subsequently rambled down were fairly simple matters of reasoning why I do not feel the same way. The criticisms brought ranged from claiming there is too much description and not enough plot, to that the pace of the story is too slow, that the battle is not competitive or fierce enough, that the characters are underdeveloped. I do not agree. I have to discuss in a subjective fashion, because at the end of the day – this is all opinion, and nobody’s can actually be ‘right’. But there was one comment that really got my goat (Where does that phrase come from? Who once had a goat stolen and never let it go? Sorry, tangent, do continue). A discussion of the characters as ‘flat’ went on to claim that (spoiler alert) Celia and Marco’s love is ‘unrealistic’, because of the (for want of a better term) magitricity between them (Magic+Electricity, do you see? No? Let’s hurry on.) (spoiler over). I cannot fathom the expectation here – if realism was what you were seeking, why would a fantasy novel be your choice?

First, let’s talk about description and descriptiveness. I feel like the adequate measure for how descriptive a piece of prose can be without overdoing it is directly related to what it is about. The Night Circus deals with a circus (funnily enough) which appears without warning, and opens only between the hours of sundown and sunup, with a colour scheme of black, white and the occasional dash of silver. Make no mistake – there is lots of description, and it makes me want to dive into this world and never return. It is beautiful. It also always, for me, augmented the plot and the nuance of the story. I never felt I had been told something that did not have relevance to the wider plot. It’s an oft repeated nugget of advice I’ve heard for novelists and writers of any narrative pieces, that if in Chapter/Part/Paragraph/Stanza 1 you mention that there is a gun in the room, by Chapter/Part/Paragraph/Stanza 3 someone should have done something with said gun – otherwise, you are leading your readers down false paths. Unless you’re dropping clever and planned red-herrings, it’s no good; as a reader, we lose a little bit of our blind faith in the storyteller when they lead us down a blind alley. I never felt like this happened with The Night Circus – if anything did occasionally drift into gratuitous description, it was all so enjoyable that I couldn’t object to being carried along with it.

This feeds nicely into the next subject on the agenda, which is that of pace. Pace. PACE. Pace. On my other blog* I recently wrote about why we choose in such droves to put pen to paper with fiction, in which I came up with an analogy about driving a car versus being a passenger. The driver might decide how fast we are going, but the passenger has the option of turning their head, looking back, peering up ahead round corners and on the map, asking us to stop the car while they get out and reorient themselves. Pace is a collaborative issue. The writer keeps it moving – the reader decides when to stop and think about it.

I love this book because of the feeling of completeness it gives. The narrative jumps forward and backwards, starting in 1873, moving forward for a while chronologically, and then jumping to 1897 when Bailey’s story begins to seep in. The careful situating of narrative always means that there is a feel of where we are going and where we have come from – and the fact that it all feeds together into a whole. The whole narrative is drip-fed occasional word portraits of a night at Le Cirque des Rêves, which is the only part to be undated. Until the end of the novel, when the final detail is placed, it could be any point in the story – it is ungrounded, yet slightly separate from the world in the tale. We know, somehow, that this is what we are heading for, eventually – but everything is not in place yet. As far as pace goes in this book, perhaps it doesn’t move forward with the excitement of a thriller, but it is so intricately detailed and imaginative, why would you want it to? It paints a picture of an event, stretched over many years and coloured with confusions, injustices and mysteries, which are delectable to savour in the moment and delicious to mull over late at night when sleep is a little less rewarding than trying to picture the Ice Garden or the Wishing Tree one more time…

Erin Morgenstern Author Photo
Source: guardian.co.uk

I should, really talk a bit more specifically about the book itself rather than prevaricating about details. The fact is, there are so many to choose from. The joy is in the way the whole book knits itself together and is inextricable – the way it nudges you, ever so gently, to think about unintended consequences, accidental repercussions, ripple and butterfly effects, and so much more. As for details – I will pick a few of my favourite moments (which will, inevitably, contain spoilers).

  • Alexander and Widget’s final conversation An insight to someone who until then seems removed from anything humane or easy to understand; his grey suit makes him difficult to be as interested in him as we should be. Morgenstern pulls of a piece of literary magic in making him fade to the background of the tale, although he is one of it’s two instigators, the same as he taught Marco to fade into the background of a crowded room. His final confessions warn us against the assumptions we make over those we don’t know in any detail.
    I love this scene because without becoming sentimental or heavy, it hints at the backdrop of realisation that Alexander and Hector Bowen hopefully feel when the contest finally comes to a close.
  • Tsukiko’s admission to Marco Kiko is one of my favourite characters, because she lends the sense of history and weight to what happens between Celia and Marco – she has understood and watched; she is old, not quite so old as her one-time instructor, but old enough – and has not lost her attachment to emotion like he has. Her succinct telling of what happened to her opponent, Hinata, is flat and closed – all of the emotion is under the surface.
  • The Night of October 31 – November 1, 1901 It seems strange to put a traumatic incident into a list of ‘favourites’, but Herr Frederick Thiessen’s death is when the tone of the circus and our understanding of it drops to become more urgent – we suddenly begin to comprehend the delicate web of influence that the competition rests in the centre of.

I could, of course, go on for far longer about every moment that I love of this book – but I think the better thing to do is to merely say – read it. If you like the fantastical, the romantic, the imaginative, the intricate, do.

What the opinions I read prior to writing this make me warn, though, is that is you wish to be transported by magical prose, you must leave cynicism behind you – skeptics and sarcastics will be stuck in the doorway, and only see the flat walls of a hall, not realising the magic within. If you go in trying to poke holes, or heavily expecting something it is not (like a fast-paced and violent magical battle) you are only going to see what you decide to. Suspension of disbelief is an overused term, but it is true – if you let yourself believe and inhabit the world you are given a line to, you’ll find something more than you might have expected.

The DoodleMole

*Other Blog – I also sporadically post poetry and prose pieces at kittyfielding.wordpress.com, do take a look if you’re interested! If not, please don’t waste your time there – keep on being you, you fabulous creature.

Have you read The Night Circus? Did you enjoy it, or do you agree with others that it was too description heavy, or have another disagreement? Have you ever had a book that you thought was great soured for you by someone else’s opinion? Let me know in the comments, or via the Contact page!


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