I remember seeing this book in the shops, reading the back cover and deciding that, for some unknown reason, it didn’t really appeal. But someone recommended it to me recently and I am really glad I gave it a second chance.
Marco and Celia are bound from an early age into a contest between two schools of magic, with a circus full of “possibilities you cannot fathom” acting as the arena. Each creates spectacle after spectacle to rival the previous, in what turns out to be an elaborate courtship ritual, but neither understands the rules of the game nor how a winner will be declared. In the meantime, Celia in particular carries the circus on her shoulders and in her hands. She casts all kinds of magic on the troupe to keep them safe and to protect the adoring fans who visit the circus night after night, as well as its original creators. But it requires an immense effort of concentration and total control of her own emotions to stop the growing circus from breaking apart under the strain of the contest, so much so that when she even contemplates unleashing her growing love for Marco she places the whole endeavour, and the lives of those she holds dear, at huge risk.
Morgenstern has created a stunning ensemble of characters, from the troubled designer of extravaganzas, Chandresh, to the twins Poppet and Widget that come into the world on the circus’ opening night, but the real star is the circus itself. Appearing overnight, without warning, it’s a black and white affair that, like the novel, is sensual, elaborate and dazzling. Made up of interconnected circles, that encourage you to wander, dream and get lost. The writer really can conjure with words and this is a visual feast of a book that celebrates the mystery and glamour that surrounds circuses. It touches on something a little deeper from time to time – there’s some darkness with the light, and everything is not black and white after all – but the overall effect is pretty rather than edgy, with even murder and spilt blood getting the theatrical treatment.
Some books are so magical you cherish every page, willing them to last forever, and this is one of them. This one hasn’t changed my perspective on the world, challenged what I think I know or feel, even got under my skin. Nor is it what Widget, towards the end of the novel, describes as “a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose”. Rather, the book, much like the night circus for which it is named, is a captivating escape from all that’s dreary in the real world – a place to experience joy, sadness and love. A place of “wonder and comfort and mystery all together”. An illusion, if you like, beneath which there’s nothing very substantial but which, nonetheless, is hugely enjoyable.