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.

Alexi Zentner, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 272 pages; 2011.

Good old-fashioned storytelling lies at the heart of Touch by first-time author Alexi Zentner. Set in the icy wilderness of Canada in the early 20th century, the tale is ripe with adventure, hardship, tragedy, murder, romance — and dark fairy tales. Oh, and there’s a teensy bit of cannibalism, too.

Spanning several generations, cut and spliced into interwoven narratives that jump backwards and forwards in time, Touch is told in the first person by Stephen, a 40-year-old Anglican priest returning to the place of his birth, where he is to take over the local church from his step-father. Or, as Stephen puts it, “to live in the shadows of my father and my grandfather in a logging town that has been drained of young men headed off to fight in Europe for the second war of my lifetime”.

As it happens, Stephen’s elderly mother is on her death bed, and he sets to work writing her eulogy for her up-coming funeral. As he sifts through his memories, trying to find the right words to write, he recalls events — and stories — from his own life and the lives of his relatives.

Chief among these is the death of his father and his younger sister, Marie, when he was 11 years old. This tragedy had a marked impact on Stephen’s life, but the return of his grandfather, Jeannot, left just as much of an impression.

In fact, Jeannot is the patriarchal heart of this novel, the character whom everything ultimately revolves. It is the stories he has passed down, across the generations, that Stephen remembers, and, in turn, shares with us, the reader.

Legend has it that a teenage Jeannot — who “had quit his training for the Catholic priesthood, left the orphanage, and traveled across the whole of Rupert’s Land”  — founded the town of Sawgamet when his dog discovered a nugget of gold as they were passing through. This sparked a gold rush and the town quickly grew in size. But Jeannot was clever and knowing that the gold would eventually run out, he set up a lumber company that helped cement his fortune.

But life in this frontier town was dangerous:

Men I knew had been killed by falling trees, had bled to death when a dull ax bounced off a log and into their leg, had been crushed when logs rolled off carts, had drowned in the river during a float. Every year a man came back dead or maimed.

Nature, too, is ominous, and the breadth and scale of the landscape belittles its new human residents — and this scares them:

My chest started to pound with urgency. I was thinking of all of the things that might lurk — the dangers of the woods: bears and wolves — but I had not expected it to be something as innocuous as the mountains that always loomed above.

And if it is not the mountains or the never-ending wall of trees, the woods are also populated with dangerous creatures. In Australia, we contend with snakes and spiders and the mythological bunyip, but in the Canadian wilderness there are bears and more — the wehtiko (“a man turned into a monster as a punishment for cannibalism”), the ijirait (also known as shape-shifters), the loup-garou (werewolf), the mahaha (a demon, from Inuit mythology), the adlet (a blood-drinking monster, also from Inuit mythology) and the qallupilluit (also known as a sea witch).

It is testament to Zentner’s writing ability that he makes these creatures seem wholly believable. I had a heart-hammering moment when Stephen recalls an incident from his childhood in which he encounters a qallupilluit:

I looked up to see the creature — I could not tell if it was a man or a woman — standing above me, its scaly skin fish-pale and bumped, mottled like it had been submerged under the water for a very long time. It had a large pouch on its back and stringy hair, and despite its milk-white eyes, the creature stared directly at me. The creature took a step toward me with unmistakable menace; it grabbed my wrist and dove into the water, pulling me after it.

The ferocious weather is a central — and dangerous — character in this novel, too. There’s a 30-foot snow storm in which Sawgamet’s residents are cut off from civilisation for one long, unbearable winter. But there is beauty in the weather, too, as this poignant paragraph demonstrates:

There is something about clear nights in the winter, the perfection of snow and ice in the light from the stars and the moon that always reminds me of the existence of God. When it’s cold enough, the sky seems to empty, and there is an infinite darkness, a sense that there is something unreachable and never-ending, something past the idea of heaven.

As you would expect from a novel narrated by a priest, there is a (slight) religious element to the story. Stephen has been damaged by events, not just the loss of family members, but of his unspoken time “behind the lines as a chaplain when we took Vimy Ridge and held Hill 70” during the Great War. Despite this, he claims that “my whole life is, in some ways, about faith”. Indeed, it is the stories of his family’s history and of the town’s history that he takes on faith — he doesn’t question their validity, although he is aware that there are gaps in his knowledge “that I cannot fill with anything other than speculation”.

In part, Touch is about loss — loss of family, loss of property, loss of life — but mostly it is about how we separate myth from reality, fact from fiction, experience from logic, and faith from doubt. How do we unravel the stories from the past in order to understand the stories we are writing for the future?

And while the supernatural elements in the text occasionally troubled me — there’s a touch of magic realism at work here, and I’m not much of a fan of that genre — I loved the fairy tale element. There is an especially compelling story about a golden caribou (depicted on the cover of the UK edition) that will stay with me forever.

On the whole, I have to say I loved this book. It is a gorgeously absorbing novel, perfect to curl up with in your favourite reading place.

Touch has been longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Sarah Addison Allen, Setting, USA

‘Garden Spells’ by Sarah Addison Allen


Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 327 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but when this one came thudding through the door, courtesy of the publisher, I practically salivated over this soon-to-be published paperback, not so much because I was dying to read the story, but because the artwork was so delicious. The image shown here doesn’t do the real hold-it-in-your-hands cover justice, because it doesn’t quite convey the gorgeous embossing that glitters like fairy dust on the dress and curlicues. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

But does the cover match the contents, I hear you say. Well, the story is certainly magical — think English author Joanne Harris transported to North Carolina — but Garden Spells isn’t going to win any top literary awards. This is comfort reading: enjoyable, fluffy and fun. In fact, I read this book in two longish sittings while the rain pounded against the window one miserably wet Saturday and it was perfect fodder for an entertaining weekend read.

The story revolves around two sisters, the relatively strait-laced Claire Waverley and her younger wayward sister Sydney, from Bascom, North Carolina.

Claire lives alone in a beautiful Queen Ann style house that has been in the family for generations. The house has a garden with magical qualities, including an apple tree that bears fruit all year round. In fact, if you eat an apple from the tree the greatest event of your life will be revealed.

Claire uses ingredients from the garden in the delicacies she cooks as part of her profitable catering business. These ingredients affect the eater in curious ways — want to be able to keep secrets, then eat Claire’s biscuits made with lilac jelly; want to make sure you are understood, then eat turkey salad made with zucchini blossoms; want to recall good memories, then drink rose geranium wine.

Unfortunately, Claire’s culinary talents have marked her out as a being a little strange, and unless she’s doing business with someone, most of the locals keep their distance.

But Claire is not the only Waverley who has a reputation for being odd. Her Aunt Evanelle has the ability to predict people’s needs and will present them with odd objects — a brooch, a mango slicer, two dimes — that will come in especially useful at a later date.

Sydney, very much aware of her family’s reputation, fled Bascom ten years ago. But now, with an abusive boyfriend on her tail, she returns to the family home — the only place she has ever felt truly safe — with her six-year-old daughter Bay in tow.

But if Sydney’s reappearance upsets Claire’s equilibrium, the arrival of a handsome man moving in next door is set to turn her carefully tended life completely upside down…

Garden Spells, a kind of chick-lit meets culinary novel meets 21st century fairytale, is an enchanting read, if a little on the silly side. It’s slightly predictable and the romantic elements are cliched, but this is balanced by a tightly written plot and such glorious descriptions of food you can’t help but feel hungry as you turn each page. If you like magic realism, you’ll love this; if you like your novels grounded in reality, you won’t. But either way this is a fun read — and the cover is a knock-out!