Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern book cover
The Night Circus (2011) is a fantasy novel written by debut novelist, Erin Morgenstern. Set in Victorian Europe, the novel opens with two practitioners of magic – Mr. A. H--- and Hector Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter) - setting up a challenge to pit their two approaches to magic against one another. Each will have a chosen player – Marco and Celia - who they will school using their own method and who, upon maturation, will compete to outdo one another in a test of creativity and magical ability. The chosen arena for this competition is the Cirque de Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), a travelling circus that takes place at night. A burning cauldron at its centre, the circus, designed in monochrome, is a riddle in itself. The strange performers oversee a plethora of elaborate and gorgeously designed exhibits, each contained within its own tent. The contest grows and so does the circus’ following, but as the two contestants discover more it becomes evident that their appreciation stretches beyond one another’s magical abilities – a problematic situation, given the nature (revealed as the novel unfolds) of the contest in which they compete.

The Magic (or should that be Magick?) that exists within the pages of The Night Circus is never fully explored, its rules and functions kept mysterious and illusive as in a dream. This can be frustrating, but one quickly realises that Morgenstern is creating a lush, sensory experience which exists outside of the rational. The circus itself, the main beneficiary of this dream-like state, is wonderfully described in places, the author’s creative faculties clearly spent on the realisation of this central piece of the story, perhaps to the detriment of the rest of the novel.

The writing is verbose and regularly frustrating. Some of the intricate descriptions work well, but much feels like tedious flailing for words. An early passage which describes the designing and making of a clock is particularly involving and, undoubtedly, the backdrop to the (non-existent) story is beautifully and minutely drawn. However, even after hundreds of pages, the characters are little more than names on the page, such is the level of characterisation. The story itself, which ambles along, never truly igniting, is predictable, flimsy, and kitsch.

Although the novel is set in Victorian Europe, very little attention is paid to attitudes, speech, or any period details really, save for allowing the ladies to wear gorgeous dresses. Once the initial premise is set, the story jumps between space and time, rarely for a good purpose and never with any reasonable level of explication.

Creating a textured, dream-like canvas, which exists purely as a piece of art in and of itself without the necessity to build onto it any structured story is a reasonable aspiration, but this goal is far from realised in a satisfactory manner here. This is a swollen, unconstrained book whose depth may catch the imagination of a reader willing to embrace unquestioningly and settle for disparate snippets of an appealing world without any real plot, but for everyone else this is tedium.

Two things that one might say for The Night Circus: Firstly, this is a book destined to be a film – and it could make a good one, provided the screenwriter fills in the gaps left by Morgenstern (story, characters – those little things). Secondly, the British hardback is a beautiful book and the effort that has gone into its design is a wonderful thing, particularly at a time when tactile books face an intense existential threat (although one would still take substance over shallow peacocking any day).

This is a debut novel and there is promise here – Morgenstern clearly has a good imagination, even if she’s failed to order her thoughts into a readable book in this instance. The world created is beautiful in its way, but sadly it’s all artifice without any solid purpose behind it. Perhaps this is the point – a dreamlike experiential novel - but it doesn’t make it any more satisfying as a four-hundred-page (five-hundred in paperback!) read.

This didn't do a lot for me (do you pick that up in the review?). I'm probably not someone who goes in for excessive descriptions for the most part and this really didn't have a lot to offer bar voluminous descriptive passages.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Night Circus on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Night Circus on Amazon (US)


Anonymous said...

I appreciate this review as I have so far only heard praise for this book and I have found it almost impossible to make my way through - I've been in the middle of it for some time now. I found it very beautifully descriptive, but mostly without emotion.

Heather said...

I have mixed feelings about this one, too, although what I love about it is what makes me really like the book overall.

Like you, I didn't feel a real connection with any of the characters...unless you consider the circus itself a character in the book. I LOVE THE CIRCUS. I could have read an entire book about the circus, with each tent getting its own chapter. This is where her flowery writing really hit the spot, I think.

And I agree that it has the potential to make a wonderful movie.

Matthew Selwyn said...


This is because you have exemplary taste, Kim. Do you want to burn our copies together, or shall we sneak them into the collection so some poor sod can enjoy a post-exam binge on this mindless nonsense?

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Heather

I'm glad you could read a whole book about the circus (and I'm tempted to suggest that that is basically The Night Circus anyway. I do think the visuals in a film would be wonderful and I can appreciate that Morgenstern has drawn an involving scene for her story. I suspect my main problem is that I don't really need minute descriptions of things, I can intuit that from far less than is offered here. But, I'm weird that way, I think.

Anonymous said...

Terrific review. I did enjoy this one more than you did, from the sound of things, but have to agree, there was a lack of connection with the characters, which is often a huge stumbling block for me.
- Belle

Matthew Selwyn said...

Glad you enjoyed it Belle, I suspect it just wasn't my type of book. Morgernstern certainly paints a pretty picture though.

Powered by Blogger.