I picked up “A Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern because the local bookstore was hosting a book club discussion about it. I normally eschew fantasy (nonfiction for me!), the story is about a circus (blech!) and the setting is in the late 19th century (yawn!), but I get involved in book clubs to read books I wouldn’t normally choose, so I gave it a try.
“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that.”
Isn’t that a wonderful job description for a writer?
I relished in descriptions that evoked ideas without describing every last detail. Here’s an example of one of those descriptions, about a fantastic clock created for the entrance to the circus:
“The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and miniscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.”
Omigosh, doesn’t that make you breathless with wonder about this amazing clock? And yet, I don’t know how it turns itself inside out, how flowers and planets can exist reasonably in the same piece of art, how wrapped presents open mysteriously and interestingly. An entire game of chess? Is that a good thing? The description says nothing and everything all at once.
The narrative is nonlinear, which regular readers will recall I’m enjoying lately (read about that here). Reading it was like diving into a literary puzzle — this is a book for a thinking person. Do not attempt to read this story as an e-book! I found myself paging back and forth repeatedly to reconstruct a character’s motivations or the timeline.
And astute readers will enjoy guessing at the intended symbolism of the story. Why is the circus black and white? What does the caldron of fire represent? What is the fortune teller symbolizing?
It’s not perfect. If you want horror, if you’re looking for a story that shows instead of tells, if you want more sex and less melodrama, you’ll be sorry you invested your time. It’s a great book for a book club because valid opinions — good and bad — about the book can be argued.
Normally, I don’t like fantasy, but this fairy tale has enough reality to suit me. Still, you’ll have to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story; magic isn’t real, after all.