An imaginative and thoroughly engaging fantasy novel, Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” ostensibly revolves around the rivalry of two powerful magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and the Mr. A.H-, but the competition between their respective protégés Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair – which happens in The Circus of Dreams, or Le Cirque des Rêves, a travelling circus which only opens from sunset to sunrise – serves not only as a conduit for the development of different relationships, but also as a site for the reader to be continuously enthralled. In addition to the intricate descriptions of the performances and the wonders housed in the ever-growing number of circus tents, the themes of time and timing are emphasised through the non-linear narrative and multiple character perspectives.
The advantage of taking on dissimilar viewpoints from chapter to chapter is that the reader – like the character – shares the same sense of uncertainty, and therefore holds the same questions. The terms and details of the competition between Bowen and Alisdair, in terms of the rules of the game and how a victor is determined, for instance, are left deliberately ambiguous by their trainers, and in the beginning Bowen and Alisdair have no idea who their opponent is. And unlike a conventional novel in which the climax is marked by the eventual meeting of the two rivals or the revelation of the end-game, Morgenstern instead adds greater depth to their relationship, and expounds on the chain of events which follows as that relationship deepens. Memories are erased, doubts deepen, and lives are lost.
In tracing three broad trajectories which eventually converge – first, that of the magicians and their protégés; second, that of the genesis and development of the wandering magical circus; as well as third, that of the two children Poppet and Widget, who were born to a performer on the opening night of the circus – “The Night Circus” does a great job of threading them together, even if the ending was a little abrupt, and if the growth of a key character was not adequately fleshed out. A young and keen circus-goer Bailey, whose connection to Poppet and the circus is established early but whose background and tensions are expounded upon later in the book, felt like an abrupt introduction. His brief treatment is even more glaring, given the prominence he occupies at the very end (an ending, it must be added, which felt rushed and somewhat expected). Still, these are fairly minor quibbles, to an otherwise excellent read.