I wish I could remember my first visit to Disneyland. I wish I had clear memories of the wonder and delight I must have felt at the sights and sounds and smells. I wish I could recall the first time I entered a professional baseball stadium and saw for the first time the emerald green field stretching out before me. There are so many experiences I wish I could have again for the first time. These events are synonymous with childhood for many of us and until science develops a way for us to relive our memories, once these memories have faded, they are lost forever. This is an overly sentimental way of me saying that the experience of reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus felt very much like what I imagine those first-time memories might be if I could recall them.
What a delightful way to start the new year! Elegantly written and rich with imagery, The Night Circus tantalized my senses the way no novel has before. Morgenstern’s use of color and scent put me right in the middle of that circus. I was there among the tents. I could smell the popcorn and caramel apples and hot cocoa. I don’t know that I have ever noticed an author’s costume design before, but as costumes are an important part of any circus’s visual impression, so too are the attire of Morgenstern’s characters whether they are at the circus or not. I felt like I always had such a clear picture of what everybody looked like though Morgenstern does not spend much time describing what the characters look like, only their clothing. My imagination invented the rest quite easily because the rest of the picture was so clear.
This is a different kind of circus. There are no clowns, no tutu-bedecked bears riding unicycles. This circus is magical and surreal. There is a labyrinth, a vertical maze made of clouds, gardens of ice. The circus draws people to it with an almost preternatural power. A community of fans develops. Calling themselves rêveurs, these fanatics wearing clothing items of red – a hat, a scarf – to identify them as members of the group and follow the circus from town to town. After experiencing the circus myself, it is easy to see how such a community would develop.
Part love story, part mystery, The Night Circus takes place over a period of three decades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and follows two different sets of characters – Marco and Celia, opponents in a magic competition and Bailey, a young boy who grows to love the mysterious and beautiful circus – at various points in their lives. Peppered in between these stories is a series of second-person (you don’t see that very often) chapters describing your own experience in the circus, the conclusion of which surprised me and left me smiling. The two third-person narratives were fascinating and exciting, each with a bit of intrigue to keep the pages turning. For several nights, I found myself still awake reading way past the time I’d usually be asleep. I just couldn’t put the book down. It was a joy to read and I am sorry it is over.