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Thoughts on Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’

As a self proclaimed fantasy lover, Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’ has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list for a while, but it turned out to be the 2020 Christmas Covid-19 lockdown (in which I actually came down with the dreaded virus) that finally gave me a good excuse for a massive (somewhat self-pitying) book haul including this classic.

Overall Thoughts

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Rating: 🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈 (five cats, yes, cats)

Genre: Fantasy, Fiction

I often find with books that much like a movie trailer to it’s corresponding film, sometimes the blurb of a book manages to over-hype the book, convincing you in the bookshop that the book is a good buy, and then leaving you feeling unfulfilled and a little depressed at what you’re actually left with once you start reading, thinking ‘is this it?’. While I was afraid of this manifesting in ‘The Night Circus’ due to its pretty flawlessly engrossing blurb (seriously, that has to be in the top ten most attention-grabbing blurbs of all time), this was not the case at all, and instead was a thrilling and compelling read that had be spellbound to the last page. Described in succinct and yet highly detailed language, Morgenstern paints a fantastical and imaginative world involving magic, enigma, and an enthralling circus that is honestly one of the most original, and thoughtful things i’ve read in ages. With a solid and mysterious plot, as well as unique and loveable characters (and of course, a compelling romance), the book really felt like a delight to read. For me, the perfect balance between magic and fantasy, but also containing those essential aspects of reality and humanness that ground the read and make it somehow believable.

Overall, i’ve rated it five cats (yes the rating is out of five), for giving me something so refreshing, engrossing, and magical, and would encourage any lover of fantasy to give it a go.

While I won’t prattle on for hours, some key things that really made the read a 5/5 for me are:

Plot construction

One key thing that struck me with the plot, was how at the outset of the novel Marco and Celia’s game are introduced separately to the circus as two seemingly unrelated storylines, and it takes many chapters for the audience (and the characters) to slowly come to understand the circus for what it is, and how it relates to the two protagonists. Watching the Circus grow from that single idea at one of Mr Lefèvre’s wonderful Midnight Dinners,to seeing the main two protagonists slowly (seemingly randomly) brought into one-another’s orbits within it’s development, and then later Morgenstern lacing together the plotlines seamlessly as the audience slowly learns of it’s place within the game, and how the characters come to manipulate the circus is truly a delight to read. It felt like each chapter Morgenstern would (somewhat begrudgingly) reveal another small detail, clue to the puzzle of the circus, how it works, and what makes it tick. The slow unfolding of the mystery kept me engaged and wanting more. This was similarly seen with Bailey’s storyline — which I will admit I initially believed was only there to function as a way for the audience to explore the circus, — ended up an integral part of the plot line. I’m a big sucker for multiple storylines playing out separately, and then at the climax the author artfully pulling all the strings , and the story coming together seamlessly, Morgenstern really nailed that for me.

Another key aspect of the plot that while had a few growing pains, ended up really working for the novel I feel, was the pacing, and time jumps between chapters. The technique really added an air of mystery to the novel, as Morgenstern artfully jumps between years and moments, revealing a scene out of context to leave the audience wondering, and then slowly working backwards, putting together the pieces to reveal the entire plot. It also also effectively conveyed the tiredness Celia and Marco come to feel over time as the game progresses, and the grim realities of the game set in. The span of times allows one to adequately grasp just how long these characters are wrestling with mastering their talents and then attempting to use them within the game — and how long they are pining after one another, separated both literally, and metaphorically, as they are pitted against once another within their game. As Celia and Marco slowly begin to learn of the more maleficent details of the game, it’s easy to grasp their hopelessness at the prospect of no end without death and loss, their tiredness at playing the game and the drain on their talents, as well as feel their rising desire to be with one another, compounded over the years. In this way, the ending of the couple simply being able to exist, spending time together in a world of their creation, without the drain of the circus or the threat of the game hanging over their heads feels like their own personal bliss. A truly satisfying ending, I must say.

The Function of the Circus

It was somewhat surprising and refreshing for me to see that while the circus descriptions were luxurious and descriptive, conveying copious amounts of wonder and awe, over the course of the book and indeed over the years the book spans, the circus itself clearly functions more as a backdrop than a plot point. This was something I hadn’t really considered; when the book is called ‘The Night Circus’, and the blurb describes the mystery of said circus, I have to say I considered the plot would mostly revolve around the circus. And it does — and yet somehow does not. Considering that one of the key revelations for Celia is that the circus is the ‘arena’ of sorts in which herself and Marco are destined to ‘play’ one another, it felt right that the reader also more and more develops the sense that the circus was merely painting the scenes to the true plot of Celia and Marco’s situation, and is a creation as a result of their storyline, as opposed to something separate, or that actively influences it.

But aside from this, the circus also came to function something far more profound and romantic; shaping into something of a love letter between Celia and Marco. As the book progresses, and it becomes clear just how deeply the players are linked to the circus, as well as their feelings for one another, it is easy to see the circus as more of a sign of their growing attraction for one another; becoming more and more fantastical, creative, and wonderful as the pair fall more and more madly in love with one another. There’s this one quote, from that incredibly candid conversation between Widget and Alexander (or the Grey Man as I often found myself naming him), at the very end of the book, where Alexander points out that Celia and Marco are now ‘imprisoned’ within the circus, no more than spectral, and Widget responds;

‘They have each other. They are confined within a space that is remarkable, one that can, and will, grow and change around them. In a way they have the world, bound only by his [Marco’s] imagination.”

I found something so hauntingly lovely about the quote; to know that the pair are forever bound to this wonderful, mysterious place, the symbol of their love, able to create whatever they wish in peace, and yet never be able to leave it or explore the world for themselves. They created the circus, infused it with their life, imagination, magic, and of course, love, and there they will remain, together (hopefully) happily in love.

The imagination

Despite me just going on a rant about how the book is, in my opinion at least, not entirely about the circus, the mystery and wonder of the circus should be undervalued in any way. My mind is somewhat boggled at the variety of ideas that Morgenstern explores, the detail with which she renders the different ‘tents’ and experiences, and the atmosphere of mystery and awe which she manages to establish effectively. And not just the circus, but the characters, particularly Mr Lefèvre and his ‘Midnight Parties’, wild rooms, and even wilder ideas. In a time where there feels like such an oversaturation of YA fantasy fiction that all feels very much the same, the wonders Morgenstern dreams up felt like a breath of fresh air, absolutely enchanting, and incredible, taking the plot to new heights. How does one think up bottles holding the scent of memories, or a garden made of ice, or a cloud garden? It truly feels like something out of a fairytail.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ proved an intoxicating read that had me enthralled from literally the first page, and wanting more. I’ve just discovered Morgenstern has released a new book in late 2019, and I will have to add that to my ever-growing Amazon basket at once!

Stay safe and happy reading,

Maya — currently reading ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’

18 year old physics major with a passion for reading, a penchant for trashy young adult romance (specifically with brooding, dark, and troubled love interests)