The Night Circus is a baffling novel. To be honest I’m not even sure how much I liked or disliked it. Without question it casts an abiding enchanting spell. Though I did often feel my time might be better spent reading something more substantial. But The Night Circus is a novel that demands a more committed reader participation than most novels. If as an adult you participate in a children’s game with a hard-boiled rational prerogative you’re probably going to ruin the game. The same is true of this novel. As a reader you have to enter into its whimsical spirit to enjoy and help sustain the illusion. Because the novel does need the imaginative cooperation of the reader to work.
There’s very little plot to this novel. Basically two magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and “the man in the grey suit” or “Mr. A. H—” – are pitting their illusionist skills against each other through appointed pupils. Prospero chooses his daughter Celia, while Mr AH chooses an orphan, Marco Alisdair. The mysterious circus will be the battleground for their contest though the rules or even the nature of this contest are never made clear, neither to them nor to us.
There’s a certain amount of self-indulgence (or self-pleasuring) in its sprawling length. It could have been 200 pages shorter without making any difference to its premise or reach. It’s a bit like reading a succession of tenuously connected dreams – no coincidence one of the string-pulling characters is known as Prospero for the circus itself is like an elaborate fantasy inside someone’s head. The prose is relentlessly visual and relentlessly whimsical. It is also a novel that is constantly veering towards sentimentality. However, it does have its strengths (as its huge success would imply). Most notably how cleverly Morgenstern cajoles us into taking for granted all the impossible illusions created by the novel’s two main protagonists. She manages to turn the worlds of realism and illusion inside out so that virtually everything in her created world has a secret magical narrative off the beaten track. And it’s also impressive with how much imaginative vitality and invention Morgenstern sustains her wholly implausible story. At the end of the day what this novel offers is escapism from our day to day life and probably your level of enjoyment will depend on how much desire you have to make this escape. I discovered I find the world most of us live in essentially much more interesting and compelling!