The circus arrived without warning—the opening lines of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel. The words were apropos because that is how I felt from the minute I began her book. It’s always exciting to find a new author. It’s even better when the book is as transcendent as The Night Circus. The third line: It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The image could just as well be describing Morgenstern’s eruption into the publishing industry.
To call Morgenstern a wordsmith is to call da Vinci a painter. And while da Vinci used a brush and oils to create his masterpieces, Morgenstern uses only words to construct a world that is just as magnificent and stimulating for her readers. Like J.K. Rowling’s fully-imagined Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Morgenstern has created a complex, magical world—albeit one that is found under a field of black and white circus tents.
After reading her description of the clock commissioned for Le Cirque des Rêves, I had to stop, take a breath, and study the passage again. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. From a simple device to tell time, Morgenstern turns her clock into what she calls “something else.” Something that you and I will likely never see outside of the author’s imagination—a clock whose pieces slowly turn themselves inside and out and change over the course of 24 hours to unveil a princess pacing anxiously in a tower and waiting for her prince, teapots that pour into teacups and then emit what looks like curls of steam, wrapped presents that open themselves, and so much more. After the second reading, I was compelled to turn again to the all-too-brief author bio in the back: Erin Morgenstern is a writer and multimedia artist who describes all her work as “fairy tales in one way or another.”
At its heart, The Night Circus is a fairy-tale for adults.
The book hinges around a wager between two men—one a magician, Prospero, who pretends not to be doing real magic and the other a mysterious man known only as Alexander. Morgenstern skillfully leaves more concealed than revealed about these two characters, so it is up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks of her canvas. I found myself questioning if they were men at all. What readers are told is that the two have a long and complex history. And that it’s not the first time they have played this game. This time around the opponents are Prospero’s natural-born daughter, Celia Bowen, and Marco, the orphan that Alexander adopts, or perhaps a better word would be appropriates, and trains. All else—characters, such as the charming clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen and the mysterious and wise contortionist Tsukiko, plot, and setting—serve as an arena for the competition. Readers are left to wonder how this decades-long competition will be decided, who will choose the winner, and exactly what will happen to the loser. Although I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t yet read the book, the words “there can be only one” kept repeating in my head. This was unfortunate as I grew to love both players. And, of course, like the characters in every fairy tale ever written, Celia and Marco grow to love each other—desperately, passionately, and to the exclusion of all else.
If you haven’t read The Night Circus, I urge you to take the time to explore Morgenstern’s world. You will likely be as captivated as Bailey, a character in the book who explores the Labyrinth at Le Cirque des Rêves and finds it to be: “a dizzying network of chambers, interspersed with hallways, containing mismatched doors. Rooms that spin and rooms with glowing chessboard floors. One hall is stacked high with suitcases. In another it is snowing.”
For me, the opportunity to read a book that was truly magical, conjuring a world of unparallel delights and characters that I grew to care about, was a gift. And the world needs more of these types of gifts. But perhaps Morgenstern said it best herself when she describes the creation of the circus: “What it needs is style, panache. Ingenuity in its engineering and structure. To be infused with the mesmerizing, and perhaps a touch of mystery.”
And so, that’s just what Morgenstern gave us.