As a reader, it’s not unusual to wish you could spend time with the fictional characters whose lives you have followed. But rarely have I found myself so entranced by a book’s setting that I wished to visit it and experience it first-hand.
So it is to Erin Morgenstern’s credit that, at the close of her Orange-Prize nominated debut novel The Night Circus, I wanted to join the “Reveurs”, the band of dreamers who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the mysterious show that gives the book its name.
In Morgenstern’s phantasmagorical romance, Marco and Sylvia — both endowed with singular otherworldly abilities — are pitched against each other in a historic battle.
Set in a dusky and thrillingly gothic Victoriana and moving between the great cities of the world, the story sees them morph from children manipulated by their guardians to the reluctant masters of their own fates.
The genesis and purpose of the conflict — essentially a sort of magical one-upmanship — is unknown to its players, who use as their stage a notorious and colourful travelling circus, which boasts lion-tamers, fortune-tellers and contortionists but also frozen gardens and a maze made out of clouds.
Le Cirque des Rêves is the brainchild of the eccentric Chandresh Lefèvre but from the outset it becomes clear that it is more spectacular than he could have hoped. And, some years later, we follow a young dreamer called Bailey who finds himself strangely drawn to the circus and its many secrets.
As with many fantasy novels, it is an epic tale, all great passions, tragedies and life-changing decisions. It is incoherent, hard to follow, and a frustrating number of loose ends remain untied. The star-crossed lovers are grating and their dialogue hardly sophisticated, while few of the characters are recognisable as real people.
Yet to complain that the plot is nonsensical and the resolution absurd is to mislead. This is a spellbinding page-turner, and its strength lies in Morgenstern’s ability to create a place so oddly unbelievable yet so easily imaginable. She comes up with phrases that mean nothing yet instantly transport the reader to the scene, and her circus is a meticulously and wonderfully detailed vision, all splashes of colour and sensory pleasures.
You can almost see the vivid hues of the costumes, almost taste the caramel and cinnamon delicacies on sale and almost hear the wild enthusiasm of the crowds. Like the fictional audience, you feel the overwhelming sense of anticipation as you approach each opening night or new performance.
This is a book devoid of logic and enjoyable for its journey rather than its conclusion. But for those who allow themselves to be swept away by the magic, it is a fabulous treat.