The Night Circus

  • Erin Morgenstern
  • Doubleday
  • 400 pp.

This much-anticipated debut novel is a Cirque du Soleil made of words, a steampunk delight.

by Richard Peabody

Already a pre-publication sensation, The Night Circus began as a National Novel Writing Month project back in 2005, was rejected by 30 literary agents (all of whom must be flagellating themselves), sold for six figures to Doubleday with a 175,000-copy first printing, has also sold foreign rights in 22 countries and already landed a film deal with Summit Entertainment. This is not kid-lit, though the author does borrow tricks of the trade to create an exquisite entertainment. Advance praise includes raves from Katherine Dunn (author of Geek Love), Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife) and Tea Obreht (author of The Tiger’s Wife).

Morgenstern, a visual artist who has designed her own black-and-white Tarot deck (you can view the complete 78-card version at, is being touted as the new J. K. Rowling, which she clearly is not. She’s actually a more talented word artist and has concocted a rich sensory adult confection, presenting as well a subtle sophisticated take on enchantment. Of course there’s also the unavoidable love story and battle between good and evil, though neither is as important as the fabulous creation of Le Cirque des Reves, the Night Circus of the title.

This seemingly sentient circus “arrives without warning,” materializing on the outskirts of towns like a weekly Brigadoon and “Opens at nightfall. Closes at dawn.”

“Black–and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.”

Two-tone tents and costumes — the perfect circus for Ska lovers. And Morgenstern owes debts to everything from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao and even the music video for The Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty.” Oh, what directors Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton could do with these details.

Two timeless wizards, Prospero the Enchanter (aka Hector Bowen) and the sinister Mr. A. H., are competing via two young surrogates (like the Nic Cage film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and there can be only one standing at the end (as in the Harry Potter series or Highlander). That the price is so high won’t come as any surprise to the reader. But to naive apprentices Celia (water) and Marco (fire), this is unfathomable.

The Night Circus itself is the arena in which the young magicians engage in a decades-long duel. Not with wands or light sabers — but via their heartfelt creations and manipulations — a maze of clouds, an ice garden, a living carousel. They one-up each other until they fall madly in love.

The novel jumps back and forth through place and time during the 19th century, and that dislocation mirrors the magic afoot in the circus tents. Point of views shift, narration and tangential vignettes occur, and the short chapters are more cinematic in their pacing than literary. A multitude of characters representing several generations is introduced —  Isobel Martin, Chandresh Christophe LeFevre, Poppet and Widget, Tara and Lainie Burgess, Bailey, Ethan Barris, Herr Friedrick Thiessen — some sacrificed along the nonlinear pathway.

The actual circus becomes so popular that it develops its own fan-dom — the reveurs (who wear red scarves as their identifier). Stops on the tour are leaked by Celia to this network of fanatical devotees who travel to as many shows as they can manage, following the performers from town to city, from country to continent like 19th-century Deadheads.

I love the tents, the acts and the supporting cast. All of it vivid, memorable and fun.

Everything about the circus and magic is first-rate. The love story and the friction between Celia and Marco less so. Of course the lovers find a loophole out of their dilemma, new apprentices are discovered, order defeats chaos. But while the last section of the novel will appeal to fans of The Notebook or Water for Elephants, I found it far too simplistic and predictable. It just doesn’t live up to its “… mesmerizing love story for the ages” hype. Morgenstern considers herself a writer of fairy tales. I found myself wishing for a little more Brothers Grimm and a little less Disney.

After the climax, the author tacks on a sequence that all but ensures a sequel, while saluting writers everywhere. Seems that running the actual circus is not unlike the mental process required for writing a book — juggling details to retain forward motion. Or dare I say, “In the Beginning was the Word.” All of which is reflected in my favorite of Morgenstern’s creations — a ship made of books floating on a sea of ink.

What else can I say about a novel that is a mash-up of everything from Arthurian legend, The Illusionist, James Branch Cabell’s novels, The 10th Victim, Toby Tyler, Geek Love, The Tin Drum, Big Fish and even owes something to performance artist Nicole Blackman’s Fierce Festival shows in Birmingham, England?

Tsukiko, the tattooed contortionist who impacts the ending, sums it up best when she says about the Merlin legend: “Old stories have a habit of being told and retold and changed. Each subsequent storyteller puts his or her mark upon it. Whatever truth the story once had is buried in bias and embellishment. The reasons do not matter as much as the story itself.”

There now. Perhaps every circus story is at heart the same. For who among us doesn’t want to escape reality, run from their mundane lives, and begin again? And running away into fiction is like running away to the circus, right?

Storyteller Erin Morgenstern used to live in Salem, Mass. (Make of that what you will.) She has an art-based blog on LiveJournal. And she also posts 10-sentence flash fiction pieces inspired by photographs that are posted to her blog — erin’s emporium of discount dreams & well-worn wonders — every Friday. Now the abstract experimentalist has a bestseller on her hands. May her success translate into reveurs all her own.

Richard Peabody teaches fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he won the Award for Teaching Excellence for 2010-11. He is the founding editor of Gargoyle Magazine, and has published six books of poems, two collections of stories and a  novella, and edited 19 anthologies.

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