Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern

A Review of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”

“The Night Circus” Book Cover
“The Night Circus” Book Cover

The 2011 fantasy novel The Night Circus is clearly modeled on Canada’s Cirque du Soleil. The book’s setting is a touring circus that is only accessible by night and is called Le Cirque des Rêves. While the two circuses share a sense of panache, the thing that distinguishes author Erin Morgenstern’s creation is that it is fuelled by honest to god magic. Illusions are real in this circus. Contortionists can really bend their way into a small box. Acrobats can perform from dizzying heights without falling. And so it goes. Now, I’ve never been to a Cirque du Soleil show, but the thing about the fictional circus in this book is that it feels so real and so cool that you honestly want to go. (Not always a feeling I get with the real-life Cirque, because some of their productions just seem to be so cloying and saccharine.)

Set at the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, making The Night Circus a fin de siècle book, the tale involves an illusionist named Celia and a similar non-performing illusionist of sorts named Marco who are involved with the circus that has been created. However, the circus is nothing but an elaborate setting for a game that the two have been bound to play — the game is a product of a sort of rivalry between Celia’s father and Marco’s adopted father. The rules are murky, but the game or duel is a product of one-upmanship taken to the highest level that will have tragic consequences for both Celia and Marco and the rest of the circus if the game’s logical conclusion — getting to which could take decades — is played out.

Although the ending of the novel is a little weak and somewhat anti-climatic, The Night Circus is an enchanting book about overcoming abusive fathers, the necessity for having strong bonds with friends, and the importance of magic in real life. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, but only for adults. That’s actually an apt comparison — with the exception that I don’t think that author Erin Morgenstern has issued any shrill tweets on Twitter against transgendered women. This is simply a wonderful book that I was quite taken with. It’s a long read, but I found myself rapidly and excitedly flipping through the pages on my Kindle. The Night Circus is a compulsively readable book that draws you into its sentimental world of times gone by. It really hits all the right notes.

In fact, I think The Night Circus almost — if it weren’t for the troublesome third act — would be one of those books I would be destined to read again at some future point: a book that would join the list of great re-reads such as Stephen King’s It and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It has the right amount of nostalgic yearning for a simpler time and a great love story at its core. I particularly liked the subplot with Bailey, a young everyman who weaves in and out of the narrative as someone who is enchanted by the circus and seems destined (though that’s not quite the right word) to play some kind of role with it. That leads me to comment that one of the great strengths of the book is that it has a lot of characters in play — many balls skillfully up in the air — but Morgenstern is an apt enough writer to not let any of the balls drop. Characters can disappear for dozens of pages at a time but are memorable enough that when the story returns to them, the reader can go with the flow and pick up where they left off.

Still, the trouble is the niggling third act. Things happen, but things are not exactly 100 percent clear as to what has happened. If I were to elaborate, it would spoil the novel — which I don’t want to do because what precedes this ending is a wonderful build-up that should be read and savoured. However, I do think the ending is a bit of a cheat — a case of an author who has painted herself into a corner, but is so in love with the world she had created and characters she has conjured that she’s willing to bend some narrative rules. It’s a bit of a shame because The Night Circus has so much flavour and detail that, until the end, it seemed destined to be a five-star read. You can’t help but fall in love and be swept away by the descriptions of this fantastic circus — one that you will wish were real, but one that acts as a reminder as to the power of the written word. That’s what makes the ending of this tale something of a disappointment.

I must admit that what I’ve sat down to write here is different from what I was writing in my mind as I read this tale. The conclusion of The Night Circus has left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but I also quite enjoyed the book and was charmed by it. Part of me is really kicking myself for letting this book go unread for a good nine years on my Kindle. The Night Circus is a delight for anyone who loves dark fantasy and modern-day fantasy in one go. Don’t do as I did and ignore this delightful tale of love and magic. Even though it’s not a fresh book, it should go down as a bit of a modern-day classic — wobbly ending and all — and this is definitely a title you should keep your eyes peeled for if you haven’t already.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was originally published by Doubleday in 2011.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.