In today’s economic climate, running away and joining the circus is starting to sound like a reasonable Plan B. But even if you’re not ready for clown shoes, you’ll enjoy escaping into Erin Morgenstern’s enchanting first novel, “The Night Circus.” Written in the bewitched town of Salem, Mass., this story whisks us back a century, before circuses were dogged by PETA protests and overshadowed by “Disney on Ice,” a time when exotic acrobats and wild animals inspired awe and laughter with a soupcon of menace. But more than merely re-creating the Greatest Show on Earth, Morgenstern has spun an extravaganza that makes P.T. Barnum look smaller than Tom Thumb.
Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” “The Night Circus” presents a sprightly version of 19th-century English magic. Consider the strange proposition between two old conjurers, Hector and Alexander, each of whom claims to be the superior teacher: Hector wagers that his 6-year-old daughter, Celia, can beat any student Alexander might pose against her. We don’t know where the contest will take place, when it will commence or how the winner will be determined — and neither will the two young players enlisted to compete in this deadly game. “Let’s have no clauses at all beyond the basic rules of interference and see what happens,” Hector says. “I want to push boundaries with this one. No time limits, either.”
In ominous, atmospheric chapters of just a few pages each, Morgenstern moves quickly through the children’s supernatural preparation. Hector slits his daughter’s fingers and even breaks her bones to give her practice mending things with her mind. Alexander plucks a clever boy named Marco from an orphanage and subjects him to years of arduous reading. Both youngsters grow up without affection or companionship — or any firm idea of what they’re being prepared for.
Will Celia and Marco fall in love someday? Of course, but keep your eyes on the page, ladies and gentlemen, because how Morgenstern pulls that rabbit out of her hat is what makes “The Night Circus” worth reading.
At first, the various parts of the novel seem unrelated, but real wizardry enters the story when we’re invited to the lavish dinner parties thrown by an eccentric theater producer who’s determined to stage something truly transcendent. His guests include a clothing designer from France, a famous architect and a pair of twins. They’re charged with creating “an immersive entertainment” that will “destroy the presumptions and preconceived notions of what a circus is and make it something else entirely.”
Morgenstern sets the bar high with that description, but the spectacle that opens in a field outside of London in 1886 is a collection of nested marvels so irresistible and lovely that it’s hard to drop back into our comparatively drab little world. Celia and Marco, adults now but still unknown to each other, work for the circus in different capacities. She performs great feats of transformation; he controls a white bonfire that serves as the engine. Their complementary powers, combined with the talents of the finest designers and architects, produce Le Cirque des Rêves, “a circus of dreams,” that opens at midnight and entices patrons with an ever-evolving collection of “ethereal enigmas” and “flights of fancy”:
The animals on the carousel gallop halfway between wood and flesh, a garden of ice grows and blooms, scarves shift color and change into doves, and, most beautifully, poems run down the trunks of trees. If this novel is just cotton candy, it’s cotton candy spun from strands of edible silver. The author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.
Morgenstern has clearly erected her big tent on a field staked out by Steven Millhauser, though her prose can’t match the eerie precision of his visions. The elaborate clock that hangs over Le Cirque des Rêves could have come from the workshop of “August Eschenburg,” and her other attractions would fit comfortably in “The Barnum Museum” or in the hotel constructed by “Martin Dressler.” Millhauser’s fans may turn up their noses, but readers who find him too bloodless or subtle should buy a ticket to Morgenstern’s more playful and more dramatic surrealism.
In fact, there’s probably too much going on here, even for a three-ring circus, and so many colorful characters that the protagonists can seem a bit underdeveloped. What keeps the plot moving forward, though, is the delicately evolving attraction between Marco and Celia, as their dark masters call for fiercer competition. Soon everyone involved in the circus begins to realize they’re all walking on a very high tightrope that could snap at any moment. But how passionate that challenge is! Indeed, one of the most enthralling aspects of this novel is watching two lovers unfettered by the laws of nature or physics cast secret tokens of their affection to each other. With no more lust than a late volume of “Harry Potter,” Morgenstern manages to conjure up a love story for adults that feels luxuriously romantic. When Celia calls their circus a “wonder and comfort and mystery all together,” she could have been talking about this book.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
the night circus
By Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday. 387 pp. $26.95