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Saturday, June 30, 2012
The Night Circus
Review: Val Nolan
This first novel by Boston’s Erin Morgenstern, long-listed for what was until recently the Orange Fiction Prize, is the tale of two 19th century magicians and their epic duel across pools of tears and mazes made of clouds. Prospero and Alexander, the conjurers in question, play out their conflict through successive generations, in this case Prospero’s daughter Celia and Alexander’s protégée Marco. It’s all very beautifully described but, ultimately, is something of an empty affair.
While Celia and Marco struggle with their feelings for each other as Le Cirque des Rêves travels the world, their relationship pales before the circus itself. Beloved by all for its nocturnal shows (though, come to think of it, that really isn’t so unusual for a circus), Le Cirque des Rêves thrives on its cultish reputation, its psychics, fire-breathing paper dragons, and its thousands of acrobats always appearing "without warning".
The endless festivities and seemingly infinite spaces of the circus are this novel’s great achievement, a convincingly Victorian aesthetic peopled by the requisite cast of oddballs and recreational philosophers. The defining feature is the emphasis on real magic; the extravaganzas eschew stagecraft for all things supernatural and the result is a highly imaginative flight of fancy.
That said, the novel’s strength with spectacle is balanced by weakness of structure and of character. Morgenstern’s story succumbs to over-embellishment and contrivance in its latter stretches, though of course the same could be said of any magic show. Perhaps that is the point, for the problem — of all things — is the author’s love for the circus, an exquisitely detailed but emotionally hollow vessel for which Celia and Marco are simply personifications.
Their energies fuel Le Cirque des Rêves, their fates twine around its endless complications, but their game of magical one-upmanship is less the driver of the narrative than it is its Achilles’ heel.
Once one has realised this it becomes difficult to connect with the protagonists. Celia and Marco’s efforts to continually create bigger and better illusions are no substitute for what the resident tarot reader constantly assures us are the "deep emotions" they feel for one another.
The Night Circus is an ambitious debut which prioritises style, in the form of genuinely enchanting prose, over the substance of real characters or motivation. Though it suffers from more predictability than other books in the magical genre, there is still enough here to satisfy fans of JK Rowling or even Suzanna Clarke. Suspend your disbelief and more than likely you will enjoy your time at the Night Circus. Question it, and the illusion collapses.
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