Sometimes I read a book that has such a strong sense of place that I feel literally transported there. Sometimes this is a bad thing, like in Elie Weisel's Night Or A Thousand Splendid Sun's Afghanistan. But sometimes it is a wondrous feeling, especially when the place in question is full of magic. This is how I felt when I read the Narnia books for the first time, and frankly I'd still like to visit Caer Paravel and hang out with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Erin Morgenstern, in her debut novel The Night Circus, creates just such a magical place in Le Cirque du Reves, the setting for her imaginary game of one-upsmanship between two talented illusionists.
Celia and Marco are just children when their training begins. Their teachers, Celia's father Prospero and Marco's guardian Alexander, are old rivals who have, over the years, challenged each other to a game. The "game" involved pitting their pupils against each other in a challenge like no other. Their task is to manipulate the physical world as a test of their skills, and their playing field is a circus-a magical circus that is only open at night. But things do not go as the old masters planned when Celia and Marcos stop seeing each other as adversaries and start seeing each other as something else entirely.
Le Cirque du Reves as imagined by Morganstern is a place full of amazing people doing amazing things. There are the usual acts of contortionist and fortune teller, but there are also tents full of things that defy reality-a garden made exquisitely out of ice, a cloud maze that allows you to literally climb into the heavens, a wishing tree where wishes really come true. Even if the book was nothing but a long description of the marvelous things at the circus I would have read it and been happy. But there was also this really intriguing, mysterious story going on that had my interest piqued. While I did not get all of the answers that I was hoping for about exactly what was going on, the fact that I am still thinking about the story and what it might have meant shows what an affect it had on my imagination.
I don't usually read other reviews of a book before I write my own, but I was curious about how other people were affected by the story. I was not surprised to find that the New York Review of Books was not exactly over the moon about this book-I imagine if does not meet their rather high-falutin' definition of literary. But the other reviewers I read all felt similarly to me. For a first novel, this book does a pretty good job with evoking mood and setting up a solid plot structure. Character development is oddly lacking, given the rich possibilities for the creation of a mythology to explain the enchanters and their pupils. But unlike some of the other reviewers, I actually saw the circus itself as a character, or at least an extension of Marco and Celia. I felt like a learned a lot about them through the kinds of creations they made for their customers. I know that some readers may be put off by the non-linear narrative, but I didn't find it distracting at all, since each section is clearly marked, and there is no real jumping back and forth within sections, only between them. One reviewer I read felt that the ending set up a sequel, but I'm not sure about that. While the fate of the circus seemed rather open-ended, I was OK with it. I like imagining the circus, traveling the world, appearing and disappearing like magic, delighting everyone who is lucky enough to discover it.
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