Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Impressions

After reading that The Night Circus failed to live up to Beth and Carrie's expectations from the considerable hype, I was less excited to read this novel. I waited patiently until it came up in the library queue, and when it did, I picked it up out of mild (instead of burning) curiosity. Because my hopes had been dampened, I may have enjoyed this book much more than had I read it a couple months earlier. A short synopsis, as this is likely the 1387th review you've seen on this book:
  • Setting: An enchanting, entirely black and white circus, open only at night, that travels without notice - one never knows when or where it will show up or how long it will stay. 
  • Plot: two young children are chosen to compete in a mysterious duel of magic and illusion, a competition for which they train throughout their childhood, and once begun lasts years with no clear rules or stakes or end. 
  • Themes: chaos vs. order and control, innate vs. learned ability, illusion vs. reality, time and timing - fate vs free will.
If you prefer character-based novels, be forewarned: The Night Circus is almost entirely plot and setting driven, the characters merely outlines of chess pieces (I steal that comparison directly from the book), fleshed out only so much as necessary to move the story forward. Think Agatha Christie, with magic but no murder to solve - each character with an identifying characteristic to keep them straight (the tattooed contortionist, the farmer's son, the fortune-teller, the stylish former ballerina, the clockmaker, etc.). The character's special abilities are much more central to the tale than their personalities, which, as has been mentioned, were somewhat flat. All were defined by their skills and principles. I didn't actually mind this at all while reading - I was entirely riveted by the atmosphere Morgenstern deftly created. Her descriptions of this enchanting world brought the circus to life as if a Tim Burton film was playing in my head. 

The love story aspect more difficult to accept unless thought of in fairy tale terms - fairy tale romances are rarely based on much of substance, but mostly on whimsical fancy, and this is no exception, which was not an issue for me since the story was not first or foremost a romance, but more of a fable about what is under one's control and what is not, and the blurred lines between dreamlike illusions and reality - what is reality, after all, but what we choose to believe it to be.

Thematic quotes:
People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told to see.
This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it.
Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.
Overall, I found this to be an incredibly enjoyable and captivating read, making me wish such a whimsical circus would appear randomly in my town, just to get a taste of the impossible even if for only a moment.  
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