Archive for December 4th, 2011

December 4, 2011

Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus

Did a rather rushed review of this for the Indian Express this past weekend. I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, but it just left me deeply frustrated. I am willing to accept a book that is basically a series of lovely images, but only if the writing itself is so special as to make all of those images seem new. And the dates at the beginning of each chapter are presumably meant to tell the reader where we are in the storyline (the book goes back and forth in time rather a lot) but they only served to remind me how weak the book’s grounding in this historical period was.

Having said all of which, when The Night Circus is made into a movie (it has already been optioned) I think I will love it.

 

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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, two rival magicians enter into a competition. Each chooses a child to be his champion; the rules of the game are not specified, but the children are bound to it for life. They are Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco Alisdair, an orphan of unknown parentage. The venue for their contest is the Night Circus, an exhibition of wonders that comes and goes without warning and that is only open at night.

The carnivalesque setting of the circus invites inventive literature. The most immediate association is with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which also deals with the strange and wonderful and is also set during the fin de siècle. Carter’s is not the only modern classic that Morganstern’s book evokes. Readers familiar with these works may see elements of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But invoking the greats is dangerous, and after all this what we get is The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.

The Night Circus is physically beautiful and stylistically quite ambitious. It leaps about in time over a period of four decades, moves between a number of perspectives, and occasionally slips into the second person and addresses the reader directly.  It has its own metatexts – quotes from writings about the circus, generated from within the plot, are used to open each of the book’s five parts.

Unfortunately, it fails to develop its plot or its main characters. We are frequently reminded that the protagonists don’t even know the rules of the game they are playing and this continues even when, late in the book, we realise how high the stakes are. The horror of the inevitable outcome is muted by the fact that we’ve been given no reason to care about the people it will affect. Because though The Night Circus is a love story, we know nothing about its main characters that would cause any emotional investment in their fate.  So although we see Celia’s father torturing her as part of her training and know that her mother thought her evil, we never see how it feels to be in this position. We’re told that Marco regards his patron as a father, but never given any insight into how this happened. Isobel, a tarot reader, keeps referring to the “deep emotions” of the characters as they appear in the cards, and the reader is obliged to simply take her word for it.

The competition (and courtship) between Marco and Celia takes place mostly in the time they spend apart, through their various feats of magic. Celia excels in altering physical objects and Marco in creating beautiful settings. Occasionally they work together to combine these skills. Without a particular focus on plot or character, then, The Night Circus becomes a series of tableaux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the titular circus provides some gorgeous scenes. It’s easy to see this translating beautifully to film (it has already been optioned) with its almost-silent, monochromatic circus full of wonders. Sometimes Morganstern succeeds in describing these: “Where the sunlight hits him he is all but invisible. Part of a shoulder appears to be missing, the top of his head vanishes in a flutter of sun-caught dust.” “he takes a dramatic, inverted bow”. Extended descriptions of the circus clock, a carousel, a garden on ice all almost describe something breathtaking.

But it’s that “almost” that undoes the book. The Night Circus could survive its lack of some of the move conventional elements of storytelling if only Morganstern were able to adequately invoke the gorgeous imagery. At times she succeeds, and those moments are truly wonderful. But all too often she does not, and we have descriptions that are too stale or awkward. It’s to the book’s credit that even when the language isn’t up to it we still have some sense of the beauty that is being gestured towards. Yet my primary reaction to The Night Circus is frustration at its many missed opportunities.

 

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December 4, 2011

Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me

Short bit on this for last weekend’s column – and continuing the November children’s literature theme.

 

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Characters in stories, particularly children’s stories, always seem to find becoming a writer ridiculously simple. Jo March from Little Women, for example, only has to show up with a manuscript before she becomes a successful pulp writer, only giving it up when the man she admires tells her it is tarnishing her soul.

What I can never get enough of, though (and I suspect that this is partly because there simply aren’t enough written) are books about readers. Not just quiet, geeky types who we’re told like to read – I mean people actively reading and reacting to specific books. One of the earlier examples of this that I can think of is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland is completely absorbed in writers like Ann Radcliffe. Austen’s own book, Persuasion, forms an important part of the main character’s consciousness in Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. This year saw the publication of Jo Walton’s Among Others, in which the main character’s love of science-fiction is as big a part of her development as the actual events of the book. These works tend to assume that the reader has some familiarity with the books that the character is reading; for example, Walton’s book often quotes directly from The Lord of the Rings and expects the reader to know this.

And then there’s Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. This book, published in 2009, is about a twelve year old girl named Miranda. Among the things we learn about her is the fact that she has a favourite book, one that she has reread over and over. Readers who are familiar with the book in question will recognise it immediately – indeed, the references were so obvious to me on my first read that I didn’t even realise that the title had never been mentioned – it is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

When You Reach Me is set in New York towards the end of the 1970s. Everything changes for the narrator on the day when a strange boy hits her friend Salvador without provocation. She and Salvador grow apart and she finds new friends, one of them the boy who hit him. “The laughing man”, an elderly homeless man who speaks what appears to be nonsense, appears in their neighbourhood, and strange, naked men are seen running near the school. This is also around the time that Miranda begins to receive strange notes, left in places that no one can possibly have access to, and offering “proof” of their validity by telling her about things that will happen in the near future. The writer of the notes claims that he is coming to save the life of Miranda’s friend. He (or she?) asks her to write a letter about everything that is happening, and to be as detailed as possible. The book is the letter, the “you” the mysterious sender of notes, and eventually it becomes clear that Miranda has figured it all out.

This is where her favourite book comes in. A Wrinkle in Time sparks off discussions about time travel (readers familiar with it will know why) among the characters, and it is soon obvious that time travel is the only solution to the mystery at the heart of the book. If it seems a little implausible that Miranda should have so much trouble understanding the central conceit of her favourite book, the discussions that result make sure that we’re all very clear on how time is supposed to work.

But When You Reach Me is remarkable for more than the time-travel conceit and the references to L’Engle’s book. The winner of the 2010 Newbery award, it is quiet and realistic, with characters who are flawed and wonderful. It engages in some clever conceits (the way the chapters are ordered, for example), but it is fundamentally good storytelling. And the truth, when it becomes clear, arrives with an emotional impact far stronger than the book’s earlier restraint would lead you to believe. It’s gorgeous; but read A Wrinkle in Time first.

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