Published by Harvill Secker, 2011, 400 pages.
“The circus arrives without warning.
“No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
And just as suddenly as it appeared, it is gone.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams. It is place of magic, something that is a cross between a circus and a fair, opening at nightfall and closing at dawn. Everything is in black, white and shades of grey. Walk through the gates and you will find a contortionist, an illusionist, a bonfire that always burns and much more. The paths are labyrinthine and the tents along the paths seem to be endless, each one with its own magic world: a garden made from ice, a vertical maze where people who fall off simply float to the floor, and acrobats performing without nets. The illusionist actually performs magic (she changes the colour of her clothes just by thinking about it, and changes her jacket into a raven and back again). There is a fortune teller who can actually see the future.
The Cirque des Rêves is a place that can become addictive: in fact, there are group of people called the rêveurs, who follow it from place to place. They appear at the circus, dressed in black and white with a single element in red—a rose, a scarf or a hat.
The circus stems from an ongoing competition between two men, both practitioners of magic: Hector Bowen, known as Prospero, and his rival, known as the man in the grey suit, or Mr. H. A____. This competition has been going on for a very long time, and each man is prepared to go to any lengths to prove himself right. They each pick a student whom they train as proxies: the competition ends with the death of one of the students. And then it starts over again with two new people.
The pupils in this case are Celia Bowen, Prospero’s daughter, who shows a natural ability to perform magic as a child; and Marco Alisdair, a young boy that the man in the grey suit plucks from an orphanage and to whom he teaches magic. Each is bound with a ring that burns into their finger, leaving a scar.
The circus becomes their arena as Celia and Marco create ever-more elaborate tents, ostensibly to outdo each other, but also to woo each other. Because what neither Prospero nor the man in the grey suit foresaw (they are both completely out of touch with what it means to be alive) is that Celia and Marco fall in love. When the lovers realize that the competition will end with the death of one of them, they rebel.
But the Cirque des Rêves is kept going by these two people, with a bit of help from Isobel, the fortune teller who is in love with Marco. What will happen if they try to withdraw? How is young farm boy, Bailey—who falls in love with the circus and with Poppet, one of the red-haired twins born on the first opening night of Cirque des Rêves—involved?
I loved this book the first time I read it, and was delighted to find to find that it does not lose its enchantment the second time around. Eric Morgenstern writes so visually that it is almost like watching a film. Although my memory of the plot was sketchy, the images of the circus were clear. (I believe a film is in the making but I’m not sure if I will watch it: part of me wants to keep the images I have in my head.)
The Night Circus is full of interesting characters: the contortionist Tsukiko, who knows more about the competition than she lets on; Bailey, who is completely under the circus’s spell; the twins Poppet and Widget, who have magical powers of their own; Chandresh Lefevre, the producer of the circus who does not realize that real magic is being performed; and Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker who designs the circus clock and is the founder of the rêveurs.
I love books where you can get lost in another world, and this is one of them. There are a couple of places in fiction that I wish existed, so I could go there: one is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, and the other is the Cirque des Rêves. I’m sure if it existed, I would become a rêveur, spending hours wandering around its tents, night after night.
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