Increasingly I feel like life has lost its magic. As a kid, make-believe and fairy tales are real, and the impossible feels possible. But sadly and inevitably as we grow up, reality kicks in and things that seemed achievable and doable (like fighting dragons and marrying a prince) really are not. Thankfully, every now and again, something comes along that reignites the spark that, at best, has a dim flicker of its former self. Something like that is exactly what I needed to start 2012 in spectacular fashion, and it came in the form of Erin Morgenstern’s debut The Night Circus. It was my favourite kind of book – an engrossing and absorbing story that makes me forget the world around me and left me entirely disoriented, unsure of what is real or not anymore.
Quite simply, The Night Circus is a love story. But it is the underlying themes of dreaming and game playing that weave a complicated web, both transcending and linking the characters in ways they do not fully understand. At a young age, Celia Bowen is abandoned by her mother and left with her father, Hector Bowen, also known as Prospero the Enchanter. Celia possesses extraordinary powers to manipulate the world around her, allowing her thoughts and feelings to manifest changes in her environment. Her father, upon discovery of her innate abilities, initiates a challenge with a strange man in a grey suit. Without knowledge of the game or her competitor, Celia is bound to a magical challenge with profound implications for her future.
There is one rule for the game – Celia is not allowed to interfere in the work of her competitor, and vice versa. It does not seem particularly difficult, given she is unaware of who her competitor is, or whether the challenge has truly started. Her competitor Marco, the student of the man in the grey suit, is not in the same situation. He knows who his competitor is, and although witness to her spectacular abilities, he keeps his identity hidden. As one insightful circus member quips, “secrets have power, and that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well”.
Perhaps the greatest secret in The Night Circus is the circus itself. Le Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams, is lush and elegant and invites the audience to partake in a wondrous world that comes to life once the sun sets. Intricately decorated in black and white, impossible illusions and architectural feats are realized and described so beautifully by Morgenstern that the reader feels in a dreamlike state, experiencing all the splendor of the circus firsthand. Celia and Marco are substantial contributors to the aesthetically flawless enterprise, and the host of supporting characters each brings a unique flavour to the magical world.
But, all actions have repercussions – that’s part of the challenge of life. And the game undertaken by Celia and Marco have profound impacts on the lives of all those around them. As young and star-crossed lovers, they are naively unaware of their influence and power on all the elements of the circus. Psychologically, the reader is given insight into how seemingly insignificant actions have a ripple effect and can, in sum, be an unintentional yet substantial force of change. Storylines and lives are intricately interwoven and as the stakes of the game are fully revealed, the damning consequences of an outcome are more disturbing than Celia and Marco could ever have imagined. When the pawns are pitted against each other, the stakes are raised and what was a simple challenge of skills turns into a deadly game where one wrong move could end it all and cause the Le Cirque des Rêves to come crashing down. Characters are forced to relinquish control and accept that some things cannot be held together – for all their fear of breaking things that cannot be fixed, they will break irrespective of what action is chosen. And from this the reader learns the importance of life-changing moments. The moments in life that appear small, yet when they call for immediate and decisive action, they can completely change the course of your future. The true message is to follow your dreams and believe in yourself enough to know that whatever comes your way, you can handle it. Following the plans of others, if they do not match your own, will only surely lead you into an unhappy and unfulfilled life. Dare to dream and push the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible – we may just surprise ourselves on the journey.
The story effortlessly moves across different time lines and different narratives; a slightly disruptive method in the beginning but ultimately a perfect way to tell a story that can be told from various angles. Sections of the story are told to a perfect length – we are privy to certain details at certain times and though we may wish to linger, we drop in briefly and then are gone. It’s ingenious, really. And despite the deep underlying theme of game playing and manipulation, the lighter flourishes, including a heart-warming love story, create a magical atmosphere, inviting the reader to strive for uniqueness in a world of sameness. The breathtakingly beautiful world of Le Cirque des Rêves has re-inspired my search for truth and magic in the world. Ultimately, whether magic does or does not exist is not the question – what The Night Circus asks the reader to do is imagine that the impossible is possible and create a beautiful life in a thoughtful way, always knowing that the decisions we make have far-reaching consequences on those around us.
Quite simply, this was one of the most beautiful, mysterious and evocative books I have ever read. The spell the book creates is impossible to remove yourself from even after the final page is finished. The ending borders on unbearable, and I found myself wanting to savour the impossible beauty of the world I would soon be forced to leave. Morgenstern deserves considerable praise for a story that can weave love and magic with a deeply philosophical narrative, all packaged inside a richly described black and white circus, full of allure and illusions, that only opens at night. Now that seems a little like magic, doesn’t it?