“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep overlapping and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there in no telling where any of them may lead.”
The Night Circus introduces us to two very different magicians who appear locked in some sort of feud or debate over their magic and the ways of teaching it. One man has a daughter; the other acquires a young pupil. The men bind the two children to one another and to a magical challenge with unclear rules and no obvious time-frame. The two unwitting children, Celia and Marco, are to be extensively trained for this mysterious game and then eventually pitted against one another. Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) is the setting for this game or challenge; a nocturnal circus that appears and disappears mysteriously, full of intriguing performers and magical acts. In this circus, things are never quite as they seem.
The world of The Night Circus is a vivid and colourful one; an elegantly Victorian, multi-coloured place that smells of magic and smoked caramel. Anything seems possible, and indeed, it is. However, this world is also dark and sinister, full of characters with ulterior and unclear motives. The game, which is never clearly defined, becomes more menacing the more we learn of it. Celia and Marco are mere pawns in this game, used as a way for two older men to scrap with one another by proxy over some ancient feud. Celia and Marco’s lives are completely consumed by this second-hand, vicariously played-out rivalry, and the claustrophobia at their predicament develops and snowballs throughout the novel. Without giving too much away, their lives become inevitably and inexorability entwined in more ways than one, making the inevitable outcome of their situation even more distressing.
The game that they play involves creating the circus, and the descriptions of this fantasy world are so rich and lucid that I ended up feeling as though I was actually there, in this magical circus where anything is possible. The story follows the circus and the central characters over many years, and the introduction of a new generation is effectively done, with the story jumping between a period of around 30 years. At the end of the novel, the years join up and a full picture of events is formed. I thought that this was a particularly effective way of telling this story. Snippets here and there revealed just the right amount to keep me intrigued and vying for more. In the end, I read the entire book in two brilliantly sunny afternoons.
The world reminded me a little of the one portrayed in the film The Prestige, which I watched recently and loved. That Victorian, theatrical, magical aesthetic and setting is one that had never really appealed to me before. Hugh Jackman is undoubtedly partly responsible for my change of heart and for me approaching this book in the way that I did to begin with, however I don’t think anyone should be put off by the setting or the paranormal-esque content. This version of such a world is incredibly well-rendered and detailed, creating, through words, a visually rich world. Did I mention its vividness? I swear I was actually at The Circus of Dreams. I was quite upset to finish the novel and realise that I was actually in Manchester, UK, in my dining room, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.