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Apr 2016
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern - Vintage, 2012
* * * * *
I have always had a soft spot for stories of travelling entertainers. The irruption of the marvellous into the workaday world, which they represent, is a very powerful idea, because it is something we all want (the trope of the romantic meet-cute - the handsome prince who sweeps you off your feet, the princess so beautiful that when she looks at you, the entire world stops - is another very common manifestation of the same thing). As a child, the appearance of the leaflets advertising the arrival of the annual funfair was a source of great excitement. The reality, of course, was rather different. Fairs and circuses are intensely physical places, grimy, noisy and smelly, and I wandered round them in a permanent state of mild disappointment that they were not as extraordinary as I had imagined.

Writers who set their stories in such an environment have a challenge to avoid engendering a similar feeling in the reader. How to keep the location sufficiently real that it doesn't feel twee or whimsical, while still retaining a sense of wonder and possibility? It's a difficult balance to pull off, and few writers have achieved it. One such is Ray Bradbury's fabulous Something Wicked This Way Comes, which uses the darkness and wildness of autumn and hallowe'en to give his carnival a fantastical edge. The Night Circus is more derivative, but that is about the only thing I can say against it.

The story combines a travelling carnival with a duelling magicians set-up similar to The Prestige or Carter beats the Devil, the twist being that the wizards do not fight directly, but through apprentices who are initially not aware of each other's existence. The arena is le Cirque des Rêves, a marvellously described vision with an elegant black and white theme and a somewhat mysterious ability to travel between cities (the action takes place at the close of the nineteenth century in north America and the capitals of Europe). There is a large cast of carnival folk, business backers and visitors who become obsessives. But the chief character of interest is the circus itself, with its many tents containing strange marvels and extraordinary performers.

It is fair to say that there is not a lot of action. Marco and Celia, the apprentices, do their thing but are not great movers and shakers because they are largely ignorant about what is going on. The magicians who know, Hector Bowen and Alexander, are largely kept off-stage. Nor are any of the characters particularly deep. But the atmosphere of wonder and magic is kept going in a marvellous way. It is an impressive act of authorial prestidigitation that is achieved partly by the refusal to get too specific about how the magic works, partly by a narrative web approach, partly by the present tense narration and partly by the intense descriptions of the circus acts. My imagination was thoroughly engaged, so much so that I bought into the romantic elements of the plot rather more than I usually do, and that made the ending work for me.

This is an enchanting dream of a book, and one that I fear the author will have trouble living up to. But I hope she tries.

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