The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It 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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.
This book moved me in a way that books don’t normally manage. It wasn’t so much about the story, which was interesting and complex in and of itself, but in how it was told, in its imagery, in its sequence, and in its words.
Imagery is one of those things that I tend to underrate a lot of times. It’s so rare that it is handled well in modern stories that I have a tendency to forget to pay attention to it at all. I know that I certainly use it less than I should in my own writing (and I’m currently feeling inspired to fix that). Morgenstern takes such a delicate hand to her world that you can’t help but get lost in it. From the descriptions of the circus to the details that tie together with fluid ease. Every detail described holds a purpose if you’re willing to look for it, and she doesn’t just stick to the visuals as most authors fall into the rut of doing.
I absolutely loved that the story is told in small pieces of relatively isolated incidents that all come together seamlessly toward the end. The jumping around is a bit chaotic at the beginning—since this feeling of constant upheaval and lack of answers is exactly what the main characters, Celia and Marco, are experiencing, it works wonderfully. And the snippets of seemingly random characters who end up playing significant roles in the development of the circus and the characters involved therein come in at different points of time relative to the rest of the story, but manage to give just the right pacing. For me, when the pieces got closer and closer together, I felt the tension building—we were coming up on that point of converging on zero and hitting the steady state (sorry, I’m a math person—the analogy seems suited).
And I particularly liked the interjections of second person at an unclear point in time. Not only do these demonstrate the life of the circus (more obvious toward the end), but they also show us pieces of the circus that aren’t explored through the rest of the narrative. If/when you read this (if you haven’t already), pay particular attention to the last scene in second person—I absolutely loved the subtlety of the revelation.
There’s a theme to all of this, though it, too, wasn’t obvious until the end of the book. I feel the need to share a quote here (don’t worry—it’s not a spoiler!) before I go in-depth:
“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 soucong, 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 will never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that. There are many kinds of magic, after all.” — the man in the grey suit
This is officially one of my favorite isolated passages from a book, ever. The idea that stories (which is inclusive of books) shape the future and have an impact on our lives is a powerful message, and one that should not be taken lightly. I certainly know that the books I read have shaped who I am as a person, maybe not any one in particular, but certain collectively. The attitudes I have about certain topics, the way I react to conflicts, even some of the interests I have developed that don’t necessarily relate directly to reading have been influenced by my books in some way, shape or form. And everyone knows that stories are powerful—they’re part of how politicians get elected; they can start wars or end them; they can inspire a revolution or rally support for a cause.
Herr Thiessen, throughout the book, tells stories of the circus via newspapers, which in turn creates a culture of followers of the circus, which in turn helps Bailey when he needs it. Everything is interrelated in “overlapping narrative“, and it is simple words with a powerful message that brings the pieces together. And, of course, “there’s magic in that.”