The Night Circus begins by placing you, the reader, in the crowd of people standing outside the closed circus, reading the odd sign, “Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn.” You are drawn in to the anticipation, the excitement, as the sun begins to set, and the circus lights up, it’s name slowly illuminated: Le Cirque des Rêves, or, The Circus of Dreams.
The chapters following this seem to leave you behind, switching from one person to another in ways that seem disconnected and confusing at first, but which come together brilliantly in the end (hang in there!)
Our first introduction is Prospero the Enchanter, through whom we are quickly introduced to Celia, arriving as a five year old girl in the form of a human-suicide-note from her mother to her father, the magician who didn’t know she existed. An exploding teacup is the first sign that there is something particularly special about this little girl, who grows up being trained by her sometimes invisible father to become the Illusionist.
“The man in the grey suit” is our next acquaintance – making a wager with Prospero that places Celia in the middle of their game, and binds her as a six year old to her opponent, an eight year old boy chosen, seemingly at random, from an orphanage.
“The boy tries in vain to pry the ring from his finger as it dissolves into his skin. “Bindings are permanent, my boy,” the man in the grey suit says. “What am I bound to?” the boy asks, frowning at the scar where the ring had been moments before. “An obligation you already had, and a person you will not meet for some time.” “
The boy, Marco, is placed in a particular job – working for Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the founder of Le Cirque des Rêves and the plans for the circus begin to come together, as the small group made up of Madame Ana Padva, a retired Romanian ballerina, Mr Ethan Barris, engineer and architect, the Burgess sisters, Tara and Lainie, and Mr A. H. meet over midnight dinners. A clockmaker, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, also becomes involved as he is hired to build a clock described only as being “dreamlike”.
A number of performers audition for the circus – Tsukiko the contortionist, Isobel the Fortune Teller, and Celia the Illusionist – with Celia’s audition revealing to Marco that she is his opponent, and Isobel joining the circus with the sole purpose of keeping an eye on her for Marco.
Bailey is probably the easiest character to identify with when he is introduced to us, with no obvious explanation as to why a young country boy is involved in the story. He is dared by his older sister to break into the circus during the day when it is closed. He is only eleven, so he fits through the gaps in the fence and wanders around the empty, quiet circus trying to find something he can take back as proof he completed his dare. The red-haired girl who catches him wandering around the circus somehow knows his name, and instantly captures his heart and his imagination.
After the opening of the circus, Celia and Marco compete against one another, using the circus as the venue for their competition. However, things become more complicated as they get to know one another through their magic, and those who were behind the planning of the circus in the beginning begin to get caught up in the game: never aging, becoming increasingly forgetful, and arguing with half-visible men. When one of them meets with an unfortunate “accident” things begin to unravel, going even further towards complete disaster when Isobel stops protecting the circus out of a jealous rage.
“We are fish in a bowl, dear,” Tsukiko tells her, cigarette dangling precariously from her lips. “Very carefully monitored fish. Watched from all angles. If one of us floats to the top, it was not accidental. And if it was an accident, I worry that the watchers are not as careful as they should be.”
Through all of this, neither Marco nor Celia seem to think to ask the question that seems the most important: What happens to the other when one of them wins the game?
The book itself is almost as much of an illustionist as Celia herself, creating deliberately misleading paths for the reader to go down, manipulating their expectations and then shocking with unexpected twists.
It took me quite a while to get my head around the characters – especially those who overlapped from one story to another, and who were described by a different name or identity in each. Mr A. H. (aka Alexander, aka “the man with no shadow”) was one who slipped through the book appearing as at least two, if not three separate identities until Morgenstern decided to weave the threads together and reveal that all three are actually one. I was also fooled by Isobel’s reluctance to admit to her real name on her initial meeting with Marco. For quite some time I believed that Isobel was Celia, and also briefly thought that Poppet may have been a young Celia until the timeline became clearer.
“It is these aficionados, these rêveurs, who see the details in the bigger picture of the circus. They see the nuance of the costumes, the intricacy of the signs. They buy sugar flowers and do not eat them, wrapping them in paper instead and carefully bringing them home. They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent.”
I was going to rate this book five stars, but I decided instead to create a “six stars” category just for The Night Circus. It has ruined circuses for me forever. I don’t think I will ever be able to bear to go to a circus again – it would simply be too disappointing after exploring Le Cirque des Rêves. But, if I do, I’ll be the one wearing a red scarf over my black coat.