Arts and Entertainment

Le Cirque des Rêves

A review of Erin Morgenstern’s debut fantasy novel, “The Night Circus,” demonstrates that despite its minor flaws, its unparalleled writing style make it a unique read.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As an observer who has loved colors all her life, I was greatly intrigued by the idea of a circus held solely in black and white—a color scheme that symbolizes the separation between ordinary life and the circus. Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” features this environment. Amid overly descriptive, vague, and complex text that hovers between the teen and adult genres is a book that, at its heart, maintains a dream-like feature.

“The Night Circus” centers around a circus that opens at sunset and closes at dawn. The novel redefines the word circus and its connotations: it traces the circus’s circular formation of tents as a derivative from the Greek word “krikos” and fills the tents with illusionists, contortionists, acrobats, and snow leopard trainers, no longer an event that appeals to children exclusively.

It’s the setting for two young magicians, Marco and Celia, to secretly test each other’s skill and stamina by creating mystical circus tents until one is declared the victor. They were bound in this game by their guardians when they were children. However, to say the now-adults Marco and Celia are solely the main characters would be a lie; all the performers and spectators of the circus are lured into and confined in the game as well.

Although this seems fast-paced and exciting, the game is drawn out over more than a decade—uneventful compared to most young adult literature. Nevertheless, the unique plot is non-linear, jumping around in time. Morgenstern takes advantage of the fashion of the late 1800s and early 1900s to create both intricate dresses and formal wear. However, examination of the period opens up a valid critique of how the spectators never wonder how the impossible feats of illusion occur or how the circus manages to move entire tents, bonfires, and ticket booths from location to location. Especially without the aid of recent technology, this venue seems incredibly dubious and unorthodox, which makes it surprising that it was accepted so readily. Nevertheless, Morgenstern could have chosen to make the spectators more liberal to connect with her more modern audience and to establish the mysteries of the circus as her central focus.

Even though the novel’s central focus is direct, Morgenstern includes multiple character perspectives, which may blur the reader’s comprehension but may also evoke thought. Morgenstern often mentions the personal lives of seemingly random characters in the novel who later add complexity and variation to the story.

The majority of these characters are enigmatic, but it is challenging to balance this characteristic while also achieving emotional depth and attracting the audience's empathy. Morgenstern successfully executes this through Isobel, the fortune teller, after Marco admits he has loved Celia instead of her for more than a decade. Morgenstern uses tarot cards such as La Papessa, an indicator that things are not what they seem, to make the betrayal heart-breaking, as Isobel was too blind to see the truth. Another effective character was Tsukiko, the contortionist, who confided in no one and had an indiscernible expression. The novel reveals that the girl Tsukiko loved had killed herself to save Tsukiko in the last game between two magicians, explaining the contortionist’s withdrawn and guarded personality. These characters’ lucid personalities explain the motivation behind their actions, allowing the reader to glimpse into their souls.

The romance between Marco and Celia, however, is not as well-developed. The characters seem almost interchangeable because their identities and personalities are not developed. Marco spends most of his time away from the circus, creating the circus tents from London, while Celia travels with the circus internationally, so they go years without speaking. Consequently, their passionate dialogues seem sudden and ingenuine, because they don’t know or trust each other. Although the chandeliers shaking and the air changing in response to Marco and Celia’s touch was creative, these theatrics eventually made the relationship seem purely physical rather than personal. A personal connection never echoed to match the physical, only further emphasizing the lack thereof.

Morgenstern instead overcompensates for these two characters with her detailed prose, a perfect fit for the ethereal quality of the circus. She combines the five senses and creates an immersive atmosphere, the closest sensation to which is eating while reading. Morgenstern’s vivid imagery highlights the beauty in the fashion, the food, the lighting, the tents of the circus, and more, creating a flawless atmosphere.

She also subtly incorporates a variety of unique elements, such as French, German and Japanese phrases. These phrases and their meanings continue to capture the reader’s attention over multiple reads, after the ending has lost most of its mystery. Morgenstern sprinkles in the German word “wunschtraum” to describe the large, animate clock at the entrance of the circus as a dream of hope or ambition, which questions the motives of the circus founders. The French phrases are more plentiful, which range from “beaux rêves,” meaning sweet dreams, to “tête-à-tête,” a chat between two people, providing context and suspenseful insight into future events in the second read. Tsukiko’s Japanese name is intriguing because it means “moonchild,” someone who prefers to live in a dream. Since this name describes a motif for all of the characters, it also accentuates Morgenstern’s consideration of detail.

“The Night Circus” is a tangible, beautiful dream, so intensely described that a single read is unsatisfying. Erin Morgenstern’s first novel is not perfect, but the distinctive elements and storytelling method test the boundaries of appealing literature, a promising read. To get into the mood, listen to “Never Enough” and the acoustic cover of “Rewrite The Stars” from “The Greatest Showman” (2017).