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.



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.



2 Comments to “Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus

  1. I had pretty much the same reaction to this book as you — descriptions that (too often) just don’t evoke the magic of what they’re describing. Very frustrating.

    • I’ve been reading reviews and apparently a lot of people think it’s quite weak. I’m a bit surprised, seeing how the sff readers I know all seem to have loved it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>