The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I don’t usually pay much attention to hype, but I found I couldn’t ignore The Night Circus any longer. Judging by the number of glowing reviews this book has attracted, it has lived up to the hype for most people, but for me, although I did like it – loved it at times – I wasn’t quite as swept away by it as I had hoped to be. I’ll start by telling you what I loved about it and will then try to explain why not everything worked for me.

The Night Circus tells the story of Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been selected by their mentors to take part in a very special contest. The rules of the competition are shrouded in mystery and even the two illusionists themselves aren’t sure what they have to do to win. And the venue for this magical battle? Le Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams, one of the strongest, most vivid fictional worlds I’ve ever come across in a novel.

“The circus arrives without warning”, as we are told in the opening line of the novel. As it moves from town to town, it appears overnight and is “simply there, when yesterday it was not”. It really sounds amazing, more like a theme park than a traditional circus, and all the descriptions made me feel sorry that it doesn’t really exist! I know I’m not the only person who will have read this book wishing that they could visit the circus too and spend the night wandering from tent to tent, marvelling at all the spectacular attractions and performances. The setting is complemented with an authentic circus atmosphere complete with the smells of bonfire smoke and caramel, the taste of mulled cider, and a special black and white colour scheme. So much thought has gone into making the setting come to life, right down to the tiniest detail. What a great imagination Erin Morgenstern must have!

As it grows in popularity, the circus attracts a large group of followers who form a kind of fan club, calling themselves ‘rêveurs’. As we read the book we are encouraged to become rêveurs ourselves via a number of special chapters written in the second person, designed to make the reader feel they are actually there, inside the circus. I thought this aspect of the book was very effective and possibly the best use of second person narrative I’ve seen.

For me though, this book was all about the tone, the atmosphere and the descriptions of the circus, and there wasn’t much else beyond that. Outside the world of the circus there was no sense of time or place: the book is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it didn’t feel that way to me and I didn’t really notice anything to set the book in its time period. Maybe it was kept deliberately timeless – I don’t know, but I thought this was slightly disappointing as I do love a Victorian/turn of the century setting. The story develops slowly (sometimes too slowly for me), keeping the reader wondering about the true nature of the contest and what the outcome will be, but when I reached the end of the book I still wasn’t completely sure exactly what the point of the contest had been. Too many of my questions were left unanswered.

The biggest problem I had with this book, though, was the characters. When I think about my favourite books, the ones that I really loved and have kept on my shelves to read over and over again, they are the ones with strong characters, characters I can form an emotional connection with, who I can care about and understand. And that’s why, although I did like The Night Circus, I couldn’t love it. I didn’t think there was enough depth to the characters and even Celia and Marco never felt like real, fully developed people to me. Rather than being able to get inside their heads I felt I was watching them from a distance, though maybe the fact that most of the book was written in the third person present tense contributed to this. I did still enjoy this book and loved that wonderful circus setting, but if only the characters had been stronger it might have been one of my books of the year.