Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Pardon me while I blink my way back out into the sunlight like one of the Mole People, but I've only just emerged from the immersive experience of reading The Night Circus. This stylish debut novel by Erin Morgenstern runs on dark romance and imaginative gusto; it's a glamorous, dream-haunted fable of love, magic, sacrifice, and redemption.

The eponymous Le Cirque des Reves, is only open from sunset to sunrise. Its black-and-white striped tents and shadowy pathways house acrobats, living statues, an illusionist, a contortionist, and a fortune teller, along with many more esoteric entertainments—jars of olfactory memories, a Labyrinth of endless magical rooms, a shimmering Ice Garden, a meditative Pool of Tears.

What's also concealed within the tents, is the rivalry between a pair of long-lived magicians engaged in a fierce competition through their two youthful proteges.  Celia, bred from childhood for the "game" by her manipulative stage-magician father, called Prospero, is the circus illusionist. Marco, plucked from an orphanage by a mysterious mentor and inserted into the employment of the circus impresario, invents many of its uncanny attractions.

Both are adept at weaving the spells and enchantments that keep the circus running. (That they spend so much of their time trying to cloak their skillful sorcery in the trappings of fake stage illusions is one of the story's many witty charms.) But as Celia and Marco begin to understand what's at stake in their inescapable "game," the fate of the circus and its family of inhabitants hangs in the balance—a balance dangerously tipped when Celia and Marco fall in love.

 Most of the action occurs around the turn of the last century; clockwork machinery, bowler hats, and velvet gowns abound, but to label the story steampunk would be to miss the scope of Morgenstern's complex design. Within these dreamlike pages are echoes of Shakespeare and Arthuriana , and shimmering peals of fairy tales and folklore, delivered in evocative, sensory prose that intoxicates with the sights, sounds, scents and feel of this distinctive, enchanted world.

(The passionate followers of Le Cirque des Reves, in their black-and-white dress and red scarves, style themselves "reveurs." Small wonder that the book has spawned its own cult following—like the tie-dyed Deadheads of another era—eager to bask in its alternate reality.  Check out some of their devilishly creative homages on the book's Pinterest page.)

I admit, it took me awhile to get into the story. Time constraints had me reading the opening sections in short, staccato bits, and I had to keep re-reading to remind myself who everyone was. But once the story finally gelled for me, I devoured the rest in two long, luxurious gulps. That the narrative circles around in time and place is not a problem, but the reader is advised to pay close attention toward the end as two parallel stories play out exactly one year apart in alternate chapters. But persevere—this is a tale to get lost in.

 Of course, I loved the use of Tarot imagery. Morgenstern not only introduces symbolic Tarot figures into some scenes to suggest the direction of events, she includes many readings and interpretations of the cards by the fortune teller, Isobel. (Her card for Marco, her lover, Le Bateleur (the Magician/Juggler) keeps popping up in all the wrong readings.)

(Btw, as rich as Morgenstern's prose can be, mere words were not enough to contain her visual imagination, so she's designed her own set of Tarot cards, called Phantomwise, as a sort of companion to the novel. These are some of her images. Click here to feast your eyes on the rest. All images © 2004-2012 Erin Morgenstern, of course.)

Herself a most adroit bateleur, Morgenstern manages to keep all her delicate balls of plot, character, fate, and desire spinning in the air. Dreams are the magic of life, in her world, and The Night Circus appeals to the dreamer in all of us.

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