The Carnival of Life and Death: A Review of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”

By Olivia Serio
Elm Staff Writer

Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus,” is not only an enchanting novel in every sense of the word, but affecting as well, even with its sentimental ending.

The slow deliberate construction of the circus is described with  vivid details that are consuming, but not overwhelming makes for a world that, for all its illusion, seems more tangible than most realist fiction. Rather than impose her own world, Morgenstern allows her readers to join in on the adventure with second person passages at the start of each new section.

The plot itself is straightforward with a Shakespearean twist: two magicians with indefinite lifespans are engaged in a bitter rivalry that has entailed centuries of competitions between various pupils.

In the late-19th century, Prospero the Enchanter, the more flamboyant of the two, is faced with a six-year-old daughter he never knew he had. Her natural ability prompts him to select her for a final competition in which he hopes he will finally win out. His rival, the mysterious Mr. A.H., selects a nameless orphan who choses to be called Marco. The two children are bound in a lifelong game with rules that are never fully explained in a venue that has yet to be decided.

The circus, Le Cirque le Revês  (The Circus of Dreams) or the Night Circus, is childish of M. Chandresh Christophe, at the subtle bidding of Mr. A. H. The upkeep of the circus quickly falls to Marco, whereas Celia is an illusionist. The two become enamored with the circus’s performances and with each other. Unbeknownst to them, the game they have been training for since childhood is one where only one student can be left standing. The competition becomes a test of endurance for them both, whether they will destroy each other and the circus or if they can rewrite their fate.

And yet, it is not for the passionate love affair that the reader keeps reading. The world of the circus itself, its textures, smells, and images, is tangible and enthralling. It is a world of light and beauty despite darkness. The cast of characters that surround Marco and Celia are eccentric and relatable from Poppet and Widget, the twins born on opening night, to Tsukiko, the quiet and enigmatic contortionist, to Bailey, the young boy enchanted by the circus and pulled into its world.

“The Night Circus” was a page-turner from beginning to end. Not only was it remarkably well-written, but it was an absolute pleasure to read. Through the interactions of characters and plot, the story explores the intersection of competition and collaboration, destiny and choice. This not-quite-historical fiction sparkles with imagination. Its nuances could be picked apart and unraveled, but stories like this are few and far between and, like any illusion, should simply be enjoyed.


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