ANTICIPATION The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. 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. But it is not open for business. Not just yet. Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe. And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads: Opens at Nightfall Closes at Dawn "What kind of circus is only open at night?" people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates. You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets. The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred. The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock. The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold. The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens. First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light. All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back. At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q , oddly, and several e 's. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads: Le Cirque des Rêves Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother's sleeve, begging to know what it says. "The Circus of Dreams," comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly. Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter. PART I : Primordium "The Whole of Le Cirque des Rêves is formed by a series of circles. Perhaps it is a tribute to the origin of the word 'circus,' deriving from the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring. There are many such nods to the phenomenon of the circus in a historical sense, though it is hardly a traditional circus. Rather than a single tent with rings enclosed within, this circus contains clusters of tents like pyramids, some large and others quite small. They are set within circular paths, contained within a circular fence. Looping and continuous." --Friedrick Thiessen, 1892 "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moon-light, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." --Oscar Wilde, 1888 UNEXPECTED POST New York, February 1873 The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl. The lawyer who escorts her to the theater refuses to explain despite the manager's protestations, abandoning her as quickly as he can with no more than a shrug and the tip of a hat. The theater manager does not need to read the envelope to know who the girl is for. The bright eyes peering out from under a cloud of unruly brown curls are smaller, wider versions of the magician's own. He takes her by the hand, her small fingers hanging limp within his. She refuses to remove her coat despite the warmth of the theater, giving only an adamant shake of her head when he asks her why. The manager takes the girl to his office, not knowing what else to do with her. She sits quietly on an uncomfortable chair beneath a line of framed posters advertising past productions, surrounded by boxes of tickets and receipts. The manager brings her a cup of tea with an extra lump of sugar, but it remains on the desk, untouched, and grows cold. The girl does not move, does not fidget in her seat. She stays perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap. Her gaze is fixed downward, focused on her boots that do not quite touch the floor. There is a small scuff on one toe, but the laces are knotted in perfect bows. The sealed envelope hangs from the second topmost button of her coat, until Prospero arrives. She hears him before the door opens, his footsteps heavy and echoing in the hall, unlike the measured pace of the manager who has come and gone several times, quiet as a cat. "There is also a . . . package for you, sir," the manager says as he opens the door, ushering the magician into the cramped office before slipping off to attend to other theater matters, having no desire to witness what might become of this encounter. The magician scans the office, a stack of letters in one hand, a black velvet cape lined with shockingly white silk cascading behind him, expecting a paper-wrapped box or crate. Only when the girl looks up at him with his own eyes does he realize what the theater manager was referring to. Prospero the Enchanter's immediate reaction upon meeting his daughter is a simple declaration of: "Well, fuck." The girl returns her attention to her boots. The magician closes the door behind him, dropping the stack of letters on the desk next to the teacup as he looks at the girl. He rips the envelope from her coat, leaving the pin clinging steadfastly to its button. While the writing on the front bears his stage name and the theater address, the letter inside greets him with his given name, Hector Bowen. He skims over the contents, any emotional impact desired by the author failing miserably and finally. He pauses at the only fact he deems relevant: that this girl now left in his custody is, obviously, his own daughter and that her name is Celia. "She should have named you Miranda," the man called Prospero the Enchanter says to the girl with a chuckle. "I suppose she was not clever enough to think of it." The girl looks up at him again. Dark eyes narrow beneath her curls. The teacup on the desk begins to shake. Ripples disrupt the calm surface as cracks tremble across the glaze, and then it collapses in shards of flowered porcelain. Cold tea pools in the saucer and drips onto the floor, leaving sticky trails along the polished wood. The magician's smile vanishes. He glances back at the desk with a frown, and the spilled tea begins seeping back up from the floor. The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air. The girl stares at the teacup, her eyes wide. Hector Bowen takes his daughter's face in his gloved hand, scrutinizing her expression for a moment before releasing her, his fingers leaving long red marks across her cheeks. "You might be interesting," he says. The girl does not reply. He makes several attempts to rename her in the following weeks, but she refuses to respond to anything but Celia. * Several months later, once he decides she is ready, the magician writes a letter of his own. He includes no address, but it reaches its destination across the ocean nonetheless. Excerpted from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
New York Times Review
|LET me say at the outset that glamour and charm are notoriously difficult qualities to render on the page, and all those words like "mercury" and "lightning" and "ineffability" certainly apply, ditto "catching," "capturing" and "chasing." It may well be the case that we still hold "The Great Gatsby" in such high esteem because of those amazing parties to which none of us will ever be invited, and wouldn't have been in the 1920s, either. If glamour were easy, the entire fashion industry could do its thing on Sunday afternoons with a spool of thread and a few yards of gauze. Moreover, for the true geniuses of glamour, a spool of thread and a few yards of gauze are all it takes to make one feel that one is Marie Antoinette spinning around Versailles. For the rest of us, glamour is a sweaty struggle, rife with pricked thumbs, bulges and gaffes. This is why it is a risky business indeed to devote nearly 400 pages to a confection called le Cirque des Rêves, a circus that occurs at night (as opposed to what other sort of circus, by the way?) and is famous, apparently, for doing wild, magical, life-changing, impossible things. Like a magician, the writer must pull the rabbit from the hat, cut the lady in half, make the elephant disappear and so on. We long to be fooled. In "The Night Circus," her debut novel, Erin Morgenstern works hard to create just such a sense of magic, but there finally seems to be something too sensible about her sensibility to pull off the trick. The novel is - and it's an odd thing to say about a work of fiction - just too real to be believed. True magic is dangerous, and there is little of that sort of propulsive danger in these pages; where it does occur is surprising, and oddly marginalized. The setting is the late 19th and early 20th centuries in and around major world cities - New York, London, Paris, Boston and so on. The Cirque des Rêves is an entertainment that whirls through these cities, appearing suddenly, disappearing suddenly, filled with psychics and contortionists and elaborate rooms and labyrinths of great holographic intensity. People are overwhelmingly drawn to the circus. Some, known as "rêveurs," even go so far as to follow it from town to town dressed uniformly in black, white and red à la Diana Vreeland, maybe. Caught in the power vectors of the Cirque des Rêves are two special children, Marco and Celia, who grow to adulthood over the course of the novel. Both are orphans; both have been hypertrained by stern guardians in telekinetic and psychic powers; eventually, it is revealed that the two have been groomed since an early age to be each other's "opponents" in a contest of magical creation, of which the circus is the arena. The guardians have created this contest for what seems to be nothing but their own sense of power, and they are ruthless in seeing it through to the end: death for the loser. Celia grows to be an illusionist whose illusions aren't really illusions (she turns clothing into birds and can change the color of a fabric with her mind, among other powers); Marco can create entire worlds at will, invented environments of great beauty, simply by passing his hands over one's eyes. Eventually, of course, they meet, fall in love, defy their fate. Told this way, the echoes resound: "The Tempest " Angela Carter's "Nights at the Circus," any of Dickens's sensitive and beleaguered children, the HBO show "Carnivale," the brilliant Philip Pullman trilogy "His Dark Materials," with its tender adolescent pair, even "Romeo and Juliet," since these are star-crossed lovers raised by rival houses. However, in the execution, there is a curious lack of specificity, resulting in too many generic sentences like these: "The air itself is magical." "Every element of the circus blends together in a wonderful coalescence." "Candles glow in stained-glass sconces, casting dancing light over the party and its attendees." "The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find that it is more than a simple hall." We are, in other words, continually told how magical the circus and its denizens are without ever being truly surprised, entranced or beguiled. The aerialists without nets who appear here are not so different from what one could see every week when "De La Guarda" was in town, or still can at the illfated Broadway version of "Spiderman," for that matter. Rêveurs just sounds like a Frenchified way of saying "ravers," whose habits are similar; and what does "wonderful coalescence" mean? Ostensibly astonishing details, like "a dimly lit temple guarded by an albino Sphinx" escape me. Would that be a Sphinx painted white? The contest, when it gets up and running, never seems to gather force. "I've come to think of it more as a dual exhibition," Celia remarks at one point, and the book apparently agrees. Blood is shed and things burn, but the lovers remain curiously unmarked, untouched and unchanged. INDEED, the darkest and most engaging element in the novel is not the circus but the relationships between the children and their guardians, who resemble nothing so much as the kind of overattentive, hyper-achievement-oriented, controlling parents much decried in modern media. I felt, at times, that the text that perhaps most speaks to "The Night Circus" isn't "The Tempest" but "The Drama of the Gifted Child," got up in face paint and spangles. The peculiar imprisonment and constant education in isolation - a sort of early home schooling - that Marco's guardian imposes on him; the way Celia's father, before his death, repeatedly slices her fingers so she can "learn" to heal them with her mind, and breaks her wrist with a paperweight when she's not being quite magic enough: these are authentically dark, strongly imagined moments, the stuff that nightmares, if not dreams, are made of. I don't really know what "magical air" might be, but I can feel what it might be like to have your caretaker smash your wrist. Strangely, the two most powerful kinds of magic there are - the power of cruelty and the power of love - receive the least page time here, their pungency muffled in ice gardens, intricate clocks and floor-sweeping gowns that change color. The lovers duly, dully unite against a common foe (their parents, essentially) with nary a ripple of dissent, nor much of a tidal pull, between them. Magic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It's not as pretty a spectacle, but that's a story that grips the heart. The heroes have been groomed to be opponents in a magical contest, with death awaiting the loser. Stacey D'Erosmo's most recent novel is "The Sky Below."|
Publishers Weekly Review
|A circus-Le Cirque des Reves-mysteriously appears at night, remains open only during hours of darkness, and then just as mysteriously disappears. But unknown to its visitors, the circus is really a venue for a dangerous game between two talented young illusionists whose magic is real. Bound to each other by their masters, Celia and Marco are forced to challenge each other to increasingly dangerous feats and displays of sorcery. But the real challenges come when respect and love blooms between them. Morgenstern's wonderful novel is made all the more enchanting by top-notch narration from the incomparable Jim Dale. The voices he creates add depth and nuance to the book's characters. And while some of those voices may echo his work on the Harry Potter series, they are nonetheless perfectly suited to Morgenstern's characters. Mesmerizing from the very start, this audio version will enchant listeners. A Doubleday hardcover. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.|
School Library Journal Review
|Le Cirque des Reves appears without warning on the outskirts of cities around the world. Only open at night, it is filled with magic and theater, each tent a sensory experience, manipulated and sustained by two young people locked in a mysterious competition. (Sept.) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.|