We Live in a Magical World: a review of The Night Circus

TheNightCircusI just finished reading Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The book was my spring break diversion. I don’t read much contemporary fiction, usually opting for early-twentieth-century British novels when I have the time, and The Night Circus was a nice change of pace.

The novel is about a magicians’ duel, and their venue is a specially designed circus that is only open after dark. The circus’s unwitting patrons are there to be entertained, and the magicians are trying to astound them through greater displays of magic. The fun part is that the novel is set in the late-nineteenth-century in a world in which no one believes in magic. While the magicians perform amazing feats of real magic, the patrons chalk it up to “circus magic.”

The novel is also a romance. “Spell-binding” love is one of those magical realities that the magicians end up dealing with. It’s a night circus. Magical things happen at night. At night doves appear out of thin air and people disappear without a trace. At night love also blooms and grows.

Morgenstern attempts to give the whole book a certain dreamlike quality by narrating in the present tense (which I found a bit distracting at first, but I got over it). The book is also sprinkled with occasional vignettes written in the second person. I know these passages were meant to reinforce the dreamlike quality, but I don’t think they were wholly successful. Second-person narrative seems pretentious and awkward. It reminds me a bit of those choose-your-own-adventure books that I read in middle school. I’m forgiving the book for this minor lapse because it still delighted me.

I won’t say that this book was deep or important, but it does have a bit of magic and whimsey. The book tries to convince the reader that this is a magical world but too few of us notice. Lately everything reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Night Circus fits this trend nicely. Chesterton wrote:

In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and subconscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life as a story: and if there is a story there is a storyteller.

The night circus is a microcosm of the world. Most of us wander through life being awed by it, but never understanding just how magical a place it is. The circus has a purpose that only tangentially involves its guests. Moreover, we tell stories everyday, but we don’t notice the master narrative of life. This novel deals with all these ideas: life is a story set in a magical world and has a purpose. And the novel’s about love. Who doesn’t like a love story?

This novel reminds me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which imagines magic returning to early-nineteenth-century England. Clarke’s novel also investigates these same themes from Chesterton. On the whole, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a better novel than The Night Circus, but The Night Circus is a little more accessible. Both are worth reading if you enjoy the fantastical.

If you’ve read these books or others like them, let me know what you think in the comments section. But please no spoilers.

6 thoughts on “We Live in a Magical World: a review of The Night Circus

  1. Couldn’t agree more! I think the book excelled within the circus, and the fantastical descriptions. I don’t think it necessarily had the depth and development to do justice to the rest of the story, and some of the characters weren’t fully explored. A bit of a frustrating one to review. On one level it is so good, yet on another it is a little deflating.

    I really enjoyed it though, and it’s one I would read again.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You’re right about there being something a bit deflating about the book. I wonder if that has something to do with the very nature of a circus. It’s just a show, and the tents will come down one day. (I enjoyed your review too.)

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