Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

[Image: Big Top, a photograph (!) by user “*Trippy4U” at the deviantART site. More in the note
at the foot of this
(looooong) post.]

On the planet of Literature of the Fantastic (considered separately from its sister worlds, for horror and science fiction), you will find three major continents, inhabited (with a great deal of crossover) by generally three types of being.

You will find, for starters, the land of ancient and often supernatural beings: gods and lesser immortals of myth (dryads, cyclopes, and such); fairies, elves, pixies, and leprechauns; unicorns, dragons, and mermaids; any or all of the Four Horsemen (especially Death).

Across the ocean in one direction lies the land of latter-day heroics. (“Latter-day” refers to the time of this continent’s creation, although many of its denizens are centuries or even millennia of age.) Aside from humans, the most common inhabitants may be horses. Swords and other weapons are commonly brandished here, occasionally in the vicinity of immigrants and tourists from the first land, often in the direction of wild creatures invented specifically (because convenient) for the tale at hand: ents and orcs, sand worms, Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, blast-ended skrewts…

On the face of it, on the third continent we’d feel most at home. The populace here is all familiar to us, just from looking around at the (present or past) “real” world: donkeys and dogs and other domestic animals; lions and swans, friendly brontosauri; and, well, the people next door. But then we dig a little deeper and the “reality” drops away: the animals talk, not just among themselves but to us, they argue and scheme, some of them have jobs; and when we visit the people next door, we find them mixing potions in the kitchen, the surfaces of their bedroom furniture writhing with living ivy, their homes’ very walls sided not with vinyl or clapboard but with gingerbread and treacle.

Many of the Grimm “fairy” tales — which feature no fairies — fall into the latter category, and so do Aesop’s fables. Also here you’ll find whole shelves full of one-off, sui generis works with (nearly or in fact) no counterpart elsewhere.

And on one of those shelves, you’ll find Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

Much that you need to know about The Night Circus announces itself in the opening sentences:

The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Much of the rest of what you’ll eventually know about it appears on the front cover of the US trade-paperback edition, shown at the right (click to enlarge):

  • Two figures, a man and a woman — both in Victorian garb — are turned away from but look back at each other. The cover depicts them as gray silhouettes, sprinkled with stars, accompanied by a puff of smoke (at the man’s feet) and a bird (at the woman’s). Despite the orientation of their bodies, it’s hard to escape the sense that these people are focused on each other: the man seems to doff his hat at the woman, and their upper bodies lean backwards, as though each is tugged in a direction opposite to his or her movement.
  • Between the man and a woman is a circular, heavily geometric figure in black and white, trimmed with red. It looks almost like an oncoming locomotive. On closer inspection, you see that this figure represents what appear to be circus tents, topped with pennants, and looked over by a large clock. (The time is a couple of minutes after midnight.)
  • …Then you pick the book up, and that’s when you notice something further — that the circular figure is a cutout, and when you turn this exterior cover you reveal the larger graphic behind: a woman’s open hand, palm up, on which the circus rests. (This inner cover, as it happens, is the cover which appeared on the first US hardback edition.)

Here’s what happens (he said, stepping all gingerly-like around a thicket of spoilers):

The lives of a troupe of nineteenth-century circus performers (and hangers-on, and sponsors) grow increasingly entangled with one another over the course of decades. Love, competition, yearning, revenge, curiosity, sacrifice, and above all mystery — it all swirls about them, envelops them, guides their actions.

But more than all those abstractions, what rules these people is magic, real magic. No one performs parlor tricks with trapdoors, mirrors, and smoke. Not a single wand or wizard’s staff makes its appearance. No one gets sawn in half…

Those of you who’ve seen the Harry Potter films may remember a scene in which Professor Lupin (played by David Thewlis) gives Harry some private lessons in facing his fears. Lupin has a locked trunk in his quarters, and in the trunk is a boggart (a creature which disguises itself as its adversary’s worst fear). Lupin confirms that Harry’s ready, and then he unlocks the trunk by gesturing at it. All the complex locks, buckles, and latches simply slide and snap out of the way, leaving the lid free for Lupin to open.

[I’ve searched, but cannot find a video of that moment anywhere online. Maybe it didn’t strike anyone else as wondrously as it it struck me. Or — maybe more likely — maybe the film’s producers are just obsessively copyright-infringement-aggressive.]

That’s what much of the magic in The Night Circus is like: no one speaks any spells, curses, or any other “magic words.” Each magician simply, well, attends to things in his or her respective, idiosyncratic way… and things which shouldn’t be possible simply, well, happen. Almost none of them have any idea how, exactly, they’re able to produce their effects. (Note one implication of this: those who can’t understand how they do it also can’t teach others to do it.)

Now, if you’re a reader who resists suspending disbelief, this may put you off considerably. At least in the Potter (and similar) worlds, performing magic is “merely” a matter of doing a certain something a certain way. You transform a bird into a bat by casting the transformation spell. If you can’t cast that spell (or so your reading subconscious self tells you), it’s just because no one has ever taught it to you, and/or you’ve not practiced enough. But you could cast it, if you really really wanted to and really really studied and practiced hard.

But The Night Circus‘s magicians are innate magicians. To the extent that they’ve “learned” their craft, they’ve done so in the same way which most of us learn how to think with language: they’re simply born with certain (unexplained) equipment, chemistry, genes, whatever, and they pick up certain skills without trying very hard, or at all.

They do have limits, however. They tire, for one thing, and then their attention wanders, and then real-world physics takes over. Each magician is better at some effects than at others (and can’t perform many of one another’s tricks at all).

Interestingly, there seem to be two general approaches to magic — nearly opposite approaches. One magician might be more a master manipulator of whole objects, or of people’s sensory experiences of those objects, while another just sort of, well, surges in the direction of an effect. (You might classify these as intellectual or practical magic, on the one hand, and intuitive or emotional magic on the other.) But practitioners of each approach more or less take their own skills for granted, while wondering at — being confused or astounded by — magic performed by practitioners of the other approach.

I myself really liked the world of The Night Circus, and left the book feeling sated and happy. Whether you share that feeling will depend, as I said, on how easily you slip into a world where the impossible routinely happens.

One other element of The Night Circus deserves mention: the style in which it’s written. Author Erin Morgenstern wrote the very first bits and pieces of what became the book as an entry in the NaNoWriMo — National Novel-Writing Month — exercise a few years ago. She concedes she had little idea of how a book “should” be written (let alone of the conventional steps to publication, once written). She didn’t know, she says, that while you can get away with brief passages written in the present tense, entire books written that way are Simply Not Done. She didn’t know to avoid the second person pronoun outside of dialogue — which is why the various “bumper” interludes between sections of the book are written that way.

For instance, the prologue-ish passage which begins as quoted early in this review (up there alongside the book cover) ends, a few pages later:

Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

Now the circus is open.

Now you may enter.

Finally, even if you accept the present-tense narration, and the (really rather limited) use of second person, you may still object to, well, a certain lack of definition in the telling — an allusiveness, often leaving you not certain what, exactly, happened. Here’s an example; a character named Bailey is visiting a fortune-teller in the circus, and has selected a tarot card (depicting a knight on horseback) from a deck, as well as a small pile of other cards. Then:

The fortune-teller nods and stacks the three piles of cards into one deck, leaving Bailey’s chosen cards on top. She flips them over, one at a time, laying them faceup in an elaborate pattern  across the table, some overlapping and others in rows, until there are about a dozen cards laid out. They are black-and-white pictures, much like the knight, some simpler, some more complicated. Many show people in various settings, and a few have animals, while some of them have cups or coins, and there are more swords. Their reflections catch and stretch in the crystal sphere that sits alongside.

In many other writers’ hands, we would know exactly what that “elaborate pattern” looked like. We would know how many rows there were, and we would know exactly how many cards were involved (none of this “about a dozen” business). We would know what at least some of those various settings (occupied by rather more definite “people”) were, and the species of some of those animals, and how many cards had cups, coins, and swords.

At many points in The Night Circus, I was reminded of fantasy novels by two other authors: Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (1983), and various works by the nineteenth-century Scottish novelist (and Congregational minister) George MacDonald, in particular Phantastes. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Winter’s Tale:

…the whole world has poured its heart into the city by the Palisades [New York], and made it far better than it ever had any right to be.

But the city is now obscured, as it often is, by the whitened mass in which it rests — rushing by us at unfathomable speed, crackling like wind in the mist, cold to the touch, glistening and unfolding, tumbling over itself like the steam of an engine or cotton spilling from a bale. Though the blinding white web of ceaseless sounds flows past mercilessly, the curtain is breaking… it reveals amid the clouds a lake of air as smooth and clear as a mirror, the deep round eye of a white hurricane.

…As we float down in utter silence, into a frame again unfreezing, we are confronted by a tableau of winter colors. These are very strong, and they call us in.

And here’s one from Phantastes (in which the narrator awakens in what he thought was a familiar room):

…I saw that a large green marble basin, in which I was wont to wash, and which stood on a low pedestal of the same material in a corner of my room, was overflowing like a spring; and that a stream of clear water was running over the carpet, all the length of the room, finding its outlet I knew not where. And, stranger still, where this carpet, which I had myself designed to imitate a field of grass and daisies, bordered the course of the little stream, the grass-blades and daisies seemed to wave in a tiny breeze that followed the water’s flow; while under the rivulet they bent and swayed with every motion of the changeful current, as if they were about to dissolve with it, and, forsaking their fixed form, become fluent as the waters.

My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced. I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakable ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers. Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion. Not knowing what change might follow next, I thought it high time to get up; and, springing from the bed, my bare feet alighted upon a cool green sward; and although I dressed in all haste, I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree, whose top waved in the golden stream of the sunrise with many interchanging lights, and with shadows of leaf and branch gliding over leaf and branch, as the cool morning wind swung it to and fro, like a sinking sea-wave.

Do you see? When I read such passages, a part of my mind thinks: What in the what?!? What exactly is happening here? And another thinks: Waitaminnit. WHY is this happening at all? (Handled inexpertly, some of this sort of thing can really come across as a bit too, y’know, deus ex machina. “Magical” or merely weird events sort of scroll by on the screen, as though shot there from an automatic cannon simply for the sake of impressing the reader with the magic, the weirdness, and of course the writer’s prolifically fevered imagination.)

But mostly, I’m thinking: Okay. I don’t know exactly or maybe even approximately what’s going on, or why. But I’m enjoying the experience of what I do know.

Likewise, Morgenstern — at least, her writer’s subconscious — doesn’t layer on a lot of detail which doesn’t  (for her ends) matter. It didn’t matter to me, either; it may (or may not) to you, but at least now you know.


About the image: That photograph (photograph!) doesn’t in fact have anything to do with The Night Circus; it was posted on deviantART in 2009, well before the book was published (or maybe even written). But my gosh, did it ever make me think of the book.

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  1. ok, this was a book i had decided a long time ago i was never going to read, but your review has surprised me and kindled curiosity. it all sounds… magical! so thanks for that :)

    • Maybe you just need a break from all the murder and mayhem! (Aside to eavesdroppers: which she has been reading, not committing.)

      I’ve always thought of you as someone who would read damn near anything. Not that you’d necessarily like it all equally; you’re more discerning than that (talk about professional survival skills!). But it does surprise me that you’d close off anything in advance. What’s up with that???

      Oh, one other stylistic thing which may or may not bother you (and other readers): sentence fragments. You know how when you notice that an author is doing something, suddenly s/he seems to be doing it everywhere, ever more flagrantly? Eventually I calmed down and stopped attending to it, but for a little while it threatened to derail my otherwise great pleasure in reading the book.

      (Aside to self: you know that YOU possibly over-use sentence fragments, as a way of demonstrating informality or interior monologue. Projection much?)

  2. I love The Night Circus. A friend of mine is friends with E.M. and I am very jealous. AND I love A Winter’s Tale. So, I guess this means I have to read this Phantastes.

    Nothing bothered me about this book, but I’m like that. Once I love a story, I’m blind.

    And the picture at the top of this post–I want.

    I know someone who was driven crazy by E.M.’s lack of detailed description–as you say. I never noticed. Does that mean I’m a flawed/failed reader? Oh well. Heaven knows what this means about my own writing.

    Anyway, lovely review. Great book.

    • I’ve been thinking this week of E.E. Cummings — not in connection with The Night Circus, but it occurs to me now that much of the imagery in his poems is cut from the same bolt of allusive cloth as this book’s descriptions. Take a short passage like:

      so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
      (and birds sing sweeter
      than books
      tell how)

      If I let my mind go all steely and logical and hard, I can read something like that and think: Oh for chrissake. That doesn’t even make any sense. Why doesn’t he just SAY IT, whatever it is?!?

      The book I’m reading now is a mystery-suspense-thriller sort of thing, one of a series (by a pair of writers, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child) which for years has been a favorite of The Missus and me. Early in the book, one of the characters and his wife have just returned home from a fine anniversary meal:

      He’d sharpened his appetite with a brace of dirty martinis, followed by a charcuterie plate. And for a main course he could never resist the steak béarnaise, rare, accompanied by pommes frites and a savory dollop of creamed spinach — and, of course, he’d had a hearty helping of Nora’s loin of venison.

      I can get the reason for all this; it’s saying something important not so much about the meal, as about the character, and not so much about his appetite as about his mental state, his taste, and possibly his pretensions. But the details distracted me for a moment, right down to the accented é and the italicized French.

      I haven’t read Phantastes for many years. But the inexplicable transformations of one thing into another impressed me enough that for a college project I wrote a story in a Phantastes style (about, as it happens, the ideas expressed in Alan Watts’s The Book — I got a good grade but have no idea what the professor actually made of it :)). If you tackle it (it’s long out of copyright, so it’s easy to find), let me know what you think.

  3. Just goes to show, there are no ‘rules’, only ‘guidelines’.

    Despite my profound distaste for fantasy literature, I’m intrigued by these extracts. And I find the style quite compelling. I don’t think the author’s choices in the areas you highlight are inadvertent or flawed, but a considered and very successful construction of a narrative voice.

    The occasional use of the second person serves to draw the reader into the story, creates a sense of identity between the reader and the characters in the story. It makes you feel that you are part of this imagined world: one of the villagers, perhaps, someone who might become part of the circus’ audience. If it were done too often, it might become obtrusive; but an occasional ‘aside’ like this – where the usage is justified by being a verbalisation of the message conveyed by the situation, as if it were written on a public notice – doesn’t jar at all.

    I also like the approach to description that you illustrate with the fortune-telling excerpt. It’s not exactly spare, there is quite a lot of detail here – but it is purposefully unspecific detail. One thing this does is to humanise the narrative voice; just because a narrator is disembodied, unidentified, doesn’t mean that it must lack a persona. A more standard omniscient narrator, who is able to see and remember everything in a room, who understands the significance of everything and knows the names of everything, can be rather alienating. Morgernstern’s approach here gives the impression that her narrator is an anonymous bystander, someone who might actually have been involved in the action rather than some ethereal being floating through walls; a narrator with limited, human perceptions and knowledge. It’s quite nice for the reader to occasionally be able to feel ‘superior’ to the narrator – “Gosh, she doesn’t realise that this is called a tarot deck – but I know that!” – rather being left often floundering with worries like “Why is he telling me all this? What is the significance of that? And what the hell does THAT word mean?”

    I think there’s a supplementary advantage of disorientation generated by the refusal to elaborate on specifics here. The reader isn’t sure if this is a tarot deck or not (they’re black-and-white? none of the picture cards are described?); and that sense of uncertainty keeps us off-balance, keeps reminding us of the strangeness of this world. It is a world recognisably like our own, and yet not our own. The more familiar detail you provide, the more that disjunction disappears.

    I loathe over-description in any context. With that scene, all that’s important is who’s getting their fortune read, what the predictions are, what effect they have on the subject – and, later, how far they are fulfilled. Providing a ‘How To…’ manual on the laying out and interpretation of tarot cards would be tedious and pointless.

    The extract from the 19th century novel you included here I found almost unreadable, so tiresomely prolix I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. It was a vice of those times, something I occasionally find an obstacle to enjoyment even in authors I really like. I recall a passage in Dostoevsky somewhere (The Idiot, I think) where he breaks off from describing a conversation in a salon to laboriously remind us who is present – going around the circle in strict clockwise order, providing a thumbnail description of each participant which concludes with (in parenthesis!) a note of what they are drinking (“Tea. Black, one sugar.”). I don’t know if he meant it as a joke; or if he was plumping up the wordcount for serial publication; or if he had just gone completely bonkers. But it was an horrendous passage to find in such a great writer.

    With description, I almost always feel that LESS IS MORE. You have to leave space for readers to fill in the details from their own imaginations. I feel it’s always good to test yourself with the question, “Did I just enjoy telling you this, or did you really need to know this?” If the former, delete it.

    • A TV station in Philadelphia used to do on-air editorials taking one side or another of some hot local issue; these editorials were always followed by a voiceover which said something to the effect that “This station welcomes responsible comment from representatives of opposing points of view.” Although I didn’t write this review with you, specifically, in mind, you were the one reader here I thought might fit into that “opposing points of view” category, because I know of your general distaste for fantasy. I did try to imagine and cite the main objections people might lodge against The Night Circus. (Haven’t read the reviews at Amazon or Goodreads, so I didn’t know for sure.) I’m pleased that you haven’t been put off this book by any such objections.

      Yes, that description of the fortunetelling session does all that you say. As I was reading your comment, and nodding to myself, I also thought to add that the description is very much at the level of detail which might be used later in a retelling by someone who was there, experiencing his or her first reading of the cards. That person wouldn’t have noticed or, afterwards, reported a lot of stray details, such as specific suits, the color of the fortuneteller’s clothing, and so on.

      I think the other extreme — as in the quotation I offered Marta from the Preston/Child book, above, or sometimes when reading Stephen King, with his fondness for specific product names — doesn’t always work quite the way the author wants. It’s the uncanny valley problem, applied to exposition: verisimilitude doesn’t scale with the accretion of facts; they sometimes just highlight the unreality — the artificiality — of what you’re reading.

      Oh, pronouns — second-person or otherwise. Little thorns. They drive me crazy. The common advice to avoid the second person leads a writer into dark syntactic mazes… you can substitute “one” for “you” only so often before it starts to sound pretentious. And I will probably never overcome the (purely cultural) dilemma of “he or she,” “s/he,” “his or her” vs. “they” and “their.” Or the fact that “I” alone is always capitalized (except when speaking of/to certain gods).

      • Oh god, the indefinite pronouns are a thicket of thorns, aren’t they? Surely a strong argument for making more use of the chummy first and second person!

        I’ve just started reading Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which uses the rather unusual ‘collective narrator’ device – first person plural. I’ve got a feeling it might wear thin by the end, but let’s see.

        By the by, today I have the closest that ReCaptcha has provided to a possible character name in months, if not years: Dalhousie Fteriah.

        That might fit with a Victorian fantasy novel, perhaps?

  4. Oh sheesh, I was going to comment about how the cover–the colors, the figures, the design that looks like a train–had me thinking immediately of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and how the opening sentences were precisely the opposite of how Bradbury’s circus came rolling to town, but I was thrown sideways by your response to Whaddayamean regarding sentence fragments, having some awareness that this is a tendency of mine, and that I just committed this stylistically annoying (never mind altogether wrong) thing in a Personal Statement! Ack! (Let’s pretend we didn’t notice how the previous sentence ran on.)

    Adding The Night Circus to by booklist. Oh do I ever love to suspend disbelief.

    You ought to be writing reviews for The New Yorker. Loved this. And thank you.;)

    • Well, as I also told ms. whaddayamean, I know that I go the sentence-fragment route myself, all too readily, all too often. And as Froog points out, there really aren’t any rules — just “rules.”

      I think you fall into the category of people who write well enough that a lapse in one sentence gets disregarded because the reader wants to see what you’re writing in the next. (Hmm. Now that I think about it, everyone else who regularly comments here is in that category, too. The soul selects her own society, indeed.) Of course, if you ever end a piece with a fragment, you’re sunk. Ha.

  5. Thank you for recommending this book to me! I enjoyed it very much.

  6. Thanks! Don’t I wish. :)


  1. […] written before here about fantasy, magic, and “magic realism” — notably in a recent review of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and a post from a couple of years ago. Be sure to […]

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