While Halloween is the best time of the year for the spooky, the strange, and the eerie, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy that feeling throughout the year. This December, if you’re looking for a book to get you in the proper mood, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is it. It’s an ethereal labyrinth of a novel, filled with a carnival-esque sense of joy and wonder and tinged with bittersweetness. It’s a story about love and loss; fate and faith and choices; art and magic; illusions and secrets and dreams; kindness and cruelty; passion and sacrifice and memory. The destination is very much in the journey — a journey that can be revisited at any time.
The plot is simple: Two magicians set their apprentices against each other in a challenge as old and powerful as they are. Celia Bowen is the daughter of the famous stage magician Prospero, who performs actual magic publicly with reckless abandon. Marco Alisdair is an orphan taken in by a man without a shadow or name who trains him to be secretive and isolated. Their fighting ground is the exhibitions of Les Cirques des Reves, the eponymous Night Circus. The stakes are high, and the innocents drawn into their conflict are many; but, the results of their challenge are uniquely beautiful.
The Night Circus’s greatest strength is in its descriptions. All of the exhibitions at the circus are poignant and delightful — from the airy Cloud Maze to the delicate Ice Garden, the impossible Illusionist’s tent to the mystical Wish Tree, the stargazer to the carousel. Each setting is complete in its succinctness, a world unto itself, and yet strangely temporal in its staticness. You have to value the time you spend in each location more because of the inevitability of leaving; but, when you return, it will remain the same. I find it reflects the transitory nature of the circus, the reading of the novel, and the passing of time.
This novel’s postmodern and circular story construction plays with time in a way that can sometimes be disorienting. You are asked, in turn, to experience the circus as yourself, the reader, to experience the circus as Bailey does, and to experience the circus as different performers do. I find it best to think of it as a clock; you follow the hour, minute and second hands, and their interweaving creates the story. The beginning is not quite as complete without the end result, and each piece of the story makes the whole richer.
I will warn that there are a few scenes that could potentially be triggering. Prospero’s treatment of Celia is downright abusive and neglectful. There is also one suicide, one ambiguous death, incidents of violence, and one murder. Be careful, readers. I find the whole valuable because these are things that do happen and that are difficult to live with, and so they are important to navigate occasionally in fiction — but it does take mental prepwork.
Overall, I found this book deeply magical in a way that was also very grounded and experiential. Again, it’s a great read for Halloween or for any other time of the year.