(Audio)Book Talk: *The Night Circus*, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern (Twitter) (Facebook)
Audiobook performed by Jim Dale
Doubleday (2011), hardcover (ISBN 0385534639 / 9780385534635)
Fiction, 400 pages
Source; purchased audiobook (Audible ASIN B005MM7F7W)
Reason for reading: personal, seasonal

Opening lines: “The circus arrives without warning.

“No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

“The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

“But it is not open for business. Not just yet.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:The circus is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Comments: The Night Circus was first published last September, and was one of the “It Books” at BEA 2011. I managed to get an ARC, and for much of last autumn, I read one glowing review after another…but couldn’t seem to bring myself around to reading the book itself. My interest in it languished until one evening this past spring, in New York City, when I was immersed in the mind-warping theatrical weirdness that is Sleep No More (and which Teresa and (Other) Jenny both describe far better than I can possibly manage)–and learned, in a conversation after the show, that it had inspired Erin Morgenstern’s “Le Cirque des Rêves.” That nugget stuck with me, and when I decided that I wanted to do some seasonally-appropriate reading this month, The Night Circus was on my short list. But it’s a long book, and my “advance” copy is well past its “best by” date anyway, so I chose to read it by ear instead of in print. The audio version of The Night Circus is performed by Jim Dale, who is probably best known for his work on the Harry Potter audiobooks, and therefore has a pretty solid background in otherworldly fiction.

Morgenstern has a real talent for physical description, and I was impressed by how clearly her words evoked the sights and sounds and people of the circus for me. That said, I’m not sure how I would have perceived them if I hadn’t seen Sleep No More, because my experience with that production definitely informed what I imagined Le Cirque des Rêves to be like. The story surrounding the circus, however, comes from somewhere else.

The circus was essentially created as a venue for a competition played out over decades between two people who are the subjects of a bet made by two other people. The bettors, Hector and Alexander, have had a long-standing rivalry based on their different approaches to practicing magic, and have engaged in several challenges by proxy over their long acquaintance, pitting their students against one another. This time, the players are Hector’s own daughter, Celia, and Alexander’s orphaned ward, Marco. What their teachers don’t anticipate is that their subjects will be drawn more toward collaboration than competition, and that will change the game completely.

The Night Circus’ plot is intriguing but not groundbreaking, and the character development isn’t particularly deep. I did particularly appreciate one subset of characters: the “rêveurs,” the circus’ dedicated followers. The way they bond their fascination with this particular entertainment–corresponding with each other about it, and ultimately meeting in person to experience it together–made me think of more modern fandoms…or of book bloggers.

But for me, the novel’s strengths are in its structure–a non-linear narrative moving back and forward in time until it eventually converges, while shifting perspectives among several of the characters–and its sense of atmosphere. There’s an acceptance of the unexplained that seems to arise both from the magical elements and the greater personal reserve of the novel’s Victorian-era setting. I don’t think what Morgenstern does here is properly “magical realism,” but magic is employed matter-of-factly and is integral to the story, although she’s not explicitly dealing with a “magical” world in the Harry Potter sense.

But the Potter connection is implied, intentionally or not, by the choice of narrator for the audiobook. Based on his reading of The Night Circus, I’d say all of those Audie Awards Jim Dale has won are thoroughly deserved, and I think my next reading of the Harry Potter books will be his audio versions. And like Harry Potter’s story, The Night Circus is set to become a movie. It’s such a visual, theatrical tale that I think it could make a very good film. I just hope it turns out the way I pictured it.

Rating: Book 3.75/5, Audio 4.25/5
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