“Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.”
I am not entirely sure what I think about this book. It was not quite what I expected, though I am not sure what I expected in the first place. The plot was intricate and complex and well executed, though it was a little slow for my taste. The writing, however, was some of the most lush, vivid, gorgeous that I have ever encountered. That alone was enough to keep me reading.
The basic plot revolves around a challenge between two long-time rivals. They choose students to train to play out the challenge, almost totally ignorant of any rules or guidelines for carrying out the challenge, or even that there is a game at all. It can last for years, and ends when only one is left alive. The venue for the newest challenge is, of course, the night circus. The circus comes to a town unannounced, seemingly out of nowhere, operates only at night, stays an unadvertised length of time, then leaves as suddenly and mysteriously as it appeared. It is an experience of almost sinister sensation and desire, and unquestionably of magic. It seemed like a blend of carnival, old fashioned magic shows, and freakshows, with Victorian overtones of séance and death-obsession.
Marco and Celia are the players in this challenge, and they work around each other for years through the venue of the night circus. Their experiences and creations are beloved by the patrons of the circus. Yet despite their central role to the story, they felt somewhat shallow to me, in need of actual character development rather than magical skills development. I have read some reviews that suggest this is intentional, that they are more focused on the challenge itself and surviving it, and so are stunted and distant as human beings. Perhaps that is the case. If so, I would have liked it if that was made more clear, because as it is, they feel flat and one-dimensional to me rather than emotionally stunted.
The supporting characters are more well developed, with some shining more brightly. The twins, Bailey, the man in grey, and Propsero are among the more well developed figures. I was pleased with the role the twins grew into as the novel advanced.
What kept me reading was the language. As I said, this novel had some of the most amazing descriptive writing I’ve ever read. It is sumptuous and vibrant and alive. I can see the various acts in the tents, hear the sounds, smell the caramel apples and popcorn and cider. A perfumer should get busy creating the scents described in the circus: “…you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold,” “…the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. … There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles.” “A rosebush full of dew-dripping blossoms, the mossy smell of garden dirt. … there are other flowers along with the roses: lilies and irises and crocuses.” “The scent of rose and ice and sugar.” These are just a small sampling of the scents described throughout the novel. The scents are all associated with events or people or places and become part of the narrative themselves, a sort of shadow character we never see but which is present all the same. What perfumer wouldn’t find inspiration in these pages?
If done very carefully, this could make a good movie, and it seems that it is indeed going to become a film. I do not know how a film could ever capture all the imagery and scents depicted on the page, though. It may be a visually stunning film, but still something important will be lost. Unless they film it on smell-o-vision.
Overall, while I am conflicted about my thoughts on The Night Circus, I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys magical realism, beautiful writing, and quasi-carniepunkvictorian themes.