Author, Book review, Erin Morgenstern, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher

‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 400 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The circus arrives without warning.

So begins Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, which arrived with more than enough warning, actually — I received an uncorrected proof at least four months before the September publication date. The book has received a mighty marketing push — complete with a rather fun-filled London launch last month — on both sides of the Atlantic. One might wonder at the fuss, but it’s the type of novel that seems to have captured the imagination — of a lot of people in the book trade, at least. But this is also following through with readers, who love its sense of magic and wonder — or that’s what the Amazon reviews seem to indicate.

I’m going to be completely frank and say that the book isn’t what I would class as my usual cup of tea. But it’s such a fun novel and so playful and mischievous that any misgivings I had about the subject matter — I detest the circus and I’m not much of a fan of illusionists and magicians — were swept away by the enjoyment of it.

The story is set in the late 19th Century. The Night Circus, which only appears at night, is a true fin-de-siècle. This is not a conventional circus: each black-and-white tent is filled with people performing magic tricks and illusions, but they are not really magic tricks and illusions, they are real — except the audience does not know this.

In this tent, suspended high above you, there are people. Acrobats, trapeze artists, aerialists. Illuminated by dozens of round glowing lamps hanging from the top of the tent like planets or stars. There are no nets. […] There are girls in feathered costumes who spin at various heights, suspended by ribbons that they can manipulate. Marionettes that control their own strings. Normal chairs with legs and backs act as trapezes. Round spheres that resemble birdcages rise and descend while one or more aerialists move from within the sphere to without, standing on the top or hanging from the bars on the bottom.

The audience is comprised largely of devoted fans — rêveurs (French for “dreamers”) — who identify themselves by wearing red scarves.

The circus is presided over by a mysterious man in a grey suit, who lends the tale a menacing overtone.

But The Night Circus centres on two young magicians, Ceila and Marco, who are unknowingly pitted against each other in a dangerous competition from which only one person can survive. When they fall in love there’s an imminent sense of danger — and heartbreak. Can their deadly contest be called off before one of them dies?

Well, I’m not going to tell you the answer, am I? But rest assured this is a lovely, intensely imaginative read. I suspect that because of its romantic and magic realism elements it will appeal more to women than to men, and teenage girls are likely to adore it.

Not surprisingly the film rights have already been sold (by the same people who made Twilight), because the narrative is so visually strong. I have to say that I found its functional descriptions — all tell and not much show — a little wearing after a while. Ditto for the entire story being told in the present tense.

But as a light, fun read, with a smidgen of adventure, a touch of history, a little danger and loads of magic and mystery, this is the perfect book with which to be swept away. Red scarf optional.

11 thoughts on “‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern”

  1. I read a review of this book over at The Oncoming Hope and she talked about how the writing in this book drove her batty. The excerpts she posted were written with many temporal tense shifts, which I found awkward and hard to follow. Now that you’ve pointed out that this book is written entirely in the present tense, I worry all the more, since I find present tense writing difficult to pull off in novels. I know this book is being lauded to the high heavens by most, but I think I’m going to hold off on reading it for a while.


  2. I enjoyed your review and also enjoyed this when I listened to it on audio a couple weeks ago. I was excited about all the attention it was getting and while it did not reach Harry Potter worthy in my book, I have a feeling if they do the movie right – it will be quite impressive.


  3. I am SO curious about this book. Your review actually makes it sound fantastic, despite your misgivings. However, I can get put off by books with so much hype around them – I’m usually the one who reads it when everything has died down, but something about this book is calling me. Maybe I should bite the bullet and buy a copy…


  4. It seems to me that there does seem to be an aversion by a lot of readers to circuses in fiction, one I don’t share… I don’t like circuses in real life but love carnivale fiction; the too-similarly titled Nights at the Circus is an absolute favourite and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (I have a tendency towards the weird and wacky).
    I do plan on reading this but you have tempered my expectations; I’ll choose it when I require something light and entertaining.
    The launch sounds like a surreal dream – what fun!


  5. The marketing and design of this book suggest that its a “product” like a box of cornflakes. However, as you say, its visual features make it an ideal candidate for a film. Its not up my street – circuses and all that. I expect you hate Derren Brown’s shows then!


  6. While the books sits on my TBR (aging like a good Port, waiting for the hype to settle), I’m having fun reading all the reviews. It’s interesting to see how it started out with full-blown raving reviews, then the other extreme appeared, and now it’s the time for the more balanced approaches.
    I wonder where I’ll fall?


  7. Tom, this is a classic example of the physical book being a beautiful item to hold and own, as opposed to the electronic version. The Kindle edition is just £3.99 (or it was last time I looked) as opposed to the hardcover price which is at least twice that. I have kept hold of my hardcover (I usually give them away once read) because it’s so lovely — it has a gold-embossed red leather cover and the edge of the pages are black.
    As to Derren Brown, I rather like him! It’s animal orientated circus tricks and anything involving magicians which turns me off.


  8. Thanks for all your comments, guys, and apologies I’ve not responded to each one individually. This is a wonderfully entertaining book, but isn’t without its faults. But I think the author has achieved what she set out to achieve, which is to write something truly magical, imaginative and visual.


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