I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t a Terry Pratchett book. Not even close on the literary spectrum.
Just hear me out.
I picked up the book at the recommendation of a woman in my ASL class who works as an art inspector for an auction house. She and her daughter had both read it and absolutely loved it. Normally, having only female opinions on a book has lead to some unpleasant reads, but this one seemed different.
The story begins with a man named Hector, who goes by the stage name of Prospero. He is an illusionist, but it becomes apparent really quickly that he can use real magic to make his illusions seem just a bit more real than his fellow magicians’. On a particular night, a child is brought before him and Hector is told that it’s his daughter. She even shares some of his skills.
When a true magician hears about the girl, Hector challenges him to a long-standing feud/display of skill/ challenge. The other magician, named Alexander, is to find a pupil and train him up, and the two will have a display of skill to show which methodology wins out.
Fast forward a decade to la maison LaFevre. The owner, Chandresh, calls together a group of people to a midnight dinner and proposes an idea like no other. A circus. Not a circus of cheap tricks, flashy colors, and the lingering wonder if the patron got his or her money’s worth. This would be a circus to invigorate the senses, to re-establish a sense of fantasy, to set flocks of imagination alight in the sky above the mundane. The Circus of Dreams would be a spectacle to rival the wonders of the ancient world.
His right hand man in The Circus is Marco, a man who works behind the scenes. No one knows how the tents are set up and taken down so quickly and perfectly and no one asks. No one questions where the new acts come, or how some of the performances actually occur. Even less do they see the man Alexander, who doesn’t interfere and barely makes his presence known in The Circus. Marco is inexplicably drawn to a Miss Celia Bowen, an illusionist (quite risque for the Industrial Revolution). She is haunted by a ghost of a man she calls Hector. Every night her tent is filled to overflowing as people see her perform.
They know they are destined to turn their magic on each other. The two also know that the embers of love flicker brighter when they are near each other.
As an author, I love what this book does to me. Erin Morgenstern doesn’t write to all six senses but overwhelms all of them. The scent of freshly popped popcorn is always either present or longed-for as the pages turn, along with the flicker of flames, the dance of the bonfire, to the sound of cards being shuffled and slid over each other. There are smells and tastes and apparitions of something like umami for the mind that breaches the line between a fictional narrative and a historical account.
Then, Erin Morgenstern goes a step forward in her delicate use of 2nd person. In high school we study 1st person (I, me, my/protagonist as narrator) and 3rd person (an exterior force narrates/spectator). Almost no time is given to 2nd person because it’s so difficult to work with and so rarely used. But in The Night Circus not only are we spectators to the lives of Marco, Celia, Poppet and Widget, Bailey, Isobel and Tsukiko, but we are also lead on a journey through the circus ourselves. Then we begin to see other people go through the same attractions that we did, we see the decorations and the illumination that other people marvelled at in previous chapters.
Those two factors make the book itself like the circus it mentions. While in the book we enjoy it, revel in it, and seek to drown ourselves in the textures and sensations that the book produces, then we close it and simply go on with our lives. We can recall it and do so with a hint of that wonderment we felt while within its embrace, but few heed the call enough to be a reveur and follow The Circus wherever it may roam in pursuit of our dreams.
That is a master wordsmith at her craft.
I rarely give a book five stars, but The Night Circus gets it. Not because I’m going to insist on creating posters and drawing up an all star cast (cats or otherwise), but because having been submerged within its pages I have come back irrevocably changed. I begin to notice wonders, and believe in magic more readily. Not that other people have it and keep it to themselves, but that there may be a spark of it residing in myself.