Open the cover of Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus. Turn the first pages and the black and white on the pages start to take shape: From mere print springs black and white striped tents full of mesmerizing acts -- as if this were a pop-up book. Turn a few more. Like a flap book, the Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams, will likely lure you in to seek its secrets.
The Cirque des Reves has many peculiar qualities. It is only open from dusk to dawn and locates according to an unknown schedule. As unpredictable as a dream, the circus materializes seemingly out of nowhere and disappears the same way.
And like a dream it’s easy to get lost in. A young visitor named Bailey does: “And every turn he took through the twisting striped pathways led to more tents, more signs, more mysteries. …. Everything was magical and it seemed to go on forever. None of the pathways ended, they curved onto others or circled back to the courtyard.”
Yet we discover the circus was created not just for visitors’ pleasure but as a venue for a mysterious challenge. Two illusionists make a gentleman’s wager in which they pit their protégés against each other. Prospero proposes the challenge and binds his naturally and presumably genetically talented daughter, Celia, to the task. Celia at age 5 is already adept at exploding a cup of tea and putting it back together again—tea and all. As her father’s apprentice, she learns by doing, dragged from theater to theater, given private lessons in mending broken dolls, bird’s wings and finger wounds. The man in the gray suit, aka Alexander, adopts an orphan, isolates and surrounds him with books as well as facilitates occasional visits to museums and libraries. The youth, who names himself Marco, reads his way to illusion via mythologies, histories, novels. He masters ancient tomes and foreign languages, runes, spells and charms.
Orchestrated by theatrical producer Chandresh Chrisophe Lefevre and organized at an intimate Midnight Dinner, the circus is designed and overseen by a unique creative group that are (save for Alexander) unaware of the challenge. Each, like an ingredient in a charm potion, brings something rare to the mix. Mme Ana (Tante) Padva, a retired Romanian prima ballerina and “a fiend for aesthetics” with an eye for fashion, brings her personal sense of style which is “slightly morbid, incredibly elegant.” Ethan Barris, engineer and architect brings structure. Sisters, Tara and Lainie Burgess, Janes of all trades – i.e. dancers, actresses and librarians are careful observers of nuance and detail. Mr. A. H-- , aka Alexander, brings Marco to serve as Lefevre’s assistant and prime arranger as he competes clandestinely in the challenge.
Lefevre knows what he doesn’t want . “No elephants or clowns. Something more refined than that. Nothing Commonplace. This will be different. This will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment.” Think Victorian counterpart to the contemporary and colorful Cirque to Soleil -- mystique, elegance and exotic flair.
Lefevre knows what he wants when he sees it: the extraordinary contortionist, Tsukiko, and the illusionist, Celia. Once Celia is hired, the pieces are in place.
The undefined challenge is something like a chess match played out in ever-expanding tents of the circus, whose linking pathways are appropriately checkered in black and white squares. The color motif suggests shades of the night. The circus features some of the more usual things—aerialists and acrobats (though these work with no nets) and halls of mirrors and tents with names like Flights of Fancy, Ethereal Enigmas, Fearsome Beasts and Strange Creatures.
As Marco and Celia make their moves, they provide the extraordinary: A multi-colored magical bonfire, a carousel of ravens, gryphons, foxes and wyrens, an ice garden and cloud maze, a labyrinth a menagerie and a wishing tree, among others. The competing creators balance desire and control often using elements of fire and ice, a combination the poet Robert Frost might admire -- until both desire and control begin to take their toll and the competitors learn the cost of illusion.
The bettors occasionally reappear. Hector, like many a modern-day parent seems both to be always hovering, and never quite there for his daughter. The man in the gray suit seems absent even when he’s present. Add to the cast of characters, Isobel, the fortune teller, and a younger generation of performers, twins Poppet and Widget -- one who can read the future, the other can see the past.
The circus is so successful it has a chronicler, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, as well as a cult following, circus goers who call themselves Reveurs. They dress in shades of black, white and gray with sashes and scarves of red. The cult spreads the show’s unpublished schedule through word of mouth and members follow the performances in a kind of Victorian version of Grateful Dead fans. The most mesmerized of fans is Bailey, a young man torn between the dreams of his grandmother, Harvard, and his father, take over the family farm).
First-time novelist Erin Morgenstern takes after several of her characters. Part Tante Padva, the costume designer, she dresses her characters beautifully. Part Lefevre, event planner/ theatrical producer, she creates grand feasts and arenas for extravagant feats. Wonderful food smells waft through the book and magnificent meals are served. She shows an attention to details worthy of the Burgess sisters and her structures hold up nicely as Ethan’s. Like Thiessen, she chronicles. Like Isobel she divines. But the two characters she most resembles are the illusionists, Marco and Celia, who create magical dreamlike worlds for us to roam around in. More than just visual or sensory, her writing creates an almost physical presence in the reader’s imagination just as a dream may seem almost real upon waking; such is its magic.
The occasional use of the second person, which I have imitated here, has a slightly hypnotic effect, like that of an invisible barker at once coaxing and lulling, inviting the reader into the circus.
At book’s end other readers might feel, as I did, as if I had awoken from a dream that I wanted to hold onto for a little longer. I had a day ahead of me, but I could remember just enough to keep bringing pieces of it back to me.
My recommendation? Put your black dress on. Or don a dark suit. Toss a red scarf around your neck. Open the book. Enter the circus. Become a reveur.