Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Night Circus | Erin Morgenstern's Hugely Entertaining Novel of Magic and Illusion

Just when I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, the magic thing was beginning to lose steam, someone recommends to me Erin Morgenstern's novel, The Night Circus. Think Harry Potter for grown ups, Gaiman but more... erm, girly? (On her website Erin says she is a fan of both JK Rowling and Stephen King). Add some seriously cool fashion sense, on the gothy side of the spectrum perhaps. A bit of stargazing. A hint of predestination. You begin to get the idea.

I was undeniably gripped. Morgenstern flits from character to character, scene to scene, time zone to time zone, with a pace and a lightness of touch that is both impressive and breathless.

There are times when I found my brow knitting at her phrases, which occasionally leaned to far towards the general, the vague. Characters 'speak of other matters'... have 'something else to attend to'. It's gloriously polite and gentlemanly but with a twist of the exotic. [Morgenstern is from Massachusetts, perhaps that shows a little. Her London is an American's London.] It's a sort of literary burlesque. The women wear corsets and fabulous gowns. They strut and perform remarkable feats -- turn books into birds or tell the future -- and men fall in love with them. Men wearing fine grey suits and hats. (Love those Victorians for their hats.)

The Night Circus is a glamorous, fantastical creation. The perfect circus, unfettered by the laws of gravity or science, where you can walk on clouds and see the impossible. If the book has a fault it is that it relies too much on its inner logic. We are asked to believe that two magicians must joust -- performing feats of magic in opposition to one another -- until a clear winner is declared and the other is killed. Why? Because that is the magical contract... But why couldn't they break it? They just couldn't, you see. That is what is at stake, one of them must die.

You'll either go with that. Or you won't.

It is in the same territory as Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But without the heavy, fauz 19th Century novel prose.

Morgenstern paints a wonderful picture of The Night Circus and she had me utterly absorbed if not completely convinced with her contest. Structurally this is a complex novel that asks you to pay attention, to sit up straight -- though in the end, I felt, it was not so complex. Where I thought there was a labyrinth was actually a simple enough pathway. She essentially uses two time frames to tell the story of Celia Bowen and Marco on the one hand, and of Bailey on the other. Bailey is by far the smaller of the stories, in a sense really just an important cameo -- and actually he is just one cameo among many. These cameos add to the sense of mystery...where is this leading, who is he, why, her? Ultimately though, this is Celia and Marco's story. A love story, in a Circus. What are you waiting for?

PS, it will make lovely television. Or perhaps a film.

The Night Circus is out in paperback on May 24. It has been nominated for both the 2012 Orange Prize and the Guardian first book award.

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