Thursday, 20 June 2013
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern - The Night Circus
The Night Circus is, simply put, a masterpiece. An utterly sublime novel, it is both the best debut novel I've read since last year's Communion Town, and, equally, the best Fantasy I've read since Abercrombie's The Heroes. That said, to describe it as fantasy is to give a slightly false impression - this is low, primary-world fantasy, of the tradition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Magic exists among a select few magicians, and they use it to their own ends.
There is a placeholder plot of a competition between two rival magicians with regards their own training methods, but the true star of the book is the relationship between the two primary characters, Celia and Marco. The book throws them together through the titular Night Circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, and explores their growing love for one another in a way that, I feel, will stand the test of time. The organic growth and challenges of their first friendship, then love, is put to paper in an utterly realistic manner, a manner which made me smile, grimace, laugh,in time with the characters feeling and in ways that resonate inside myself.
Woven in amongst this love story in the framing narrative of both the competition, and the circus', fate. The circus is what many comment on when discussing the novel: a beautiful lilting prose that describes the wondrous ideas of Morgenstern's brain, what with ice rooms and labyrynths, stunning descriptions of illusionists (who are, of course, really doing magic - just making it appear that they are faking it...), the tree of wishes, the central bonfire... the scenes run and run, each sticking in the head, making the Cirque a place where you just wish you were, can picture intimately on first reading (much, interestingly, like Hogwarts was the first time I read of it). Interspersed between each part of the book are sections written in the second person: essentially following the journey of you as patron of the Cirque, they give us a glimpse into the astonishing beauty of as world constructed in black and white, tastes of the marvelous food, sights of the beautiful tents, an original, meaningful, meander from the usual swathes of first-or-third person prose that dominate most texts. It is in fact extremely hard to write in the second person (believe me I've tried), and reading it for the most part feels like a Choose your own adventure book: Morgenstern's errs right on the line of overuse, but never steps into it. Each section between parts is 2 or so pages, but they are some of the most memorable elements of a memorable book.
For a book to be obsessed about by me, it needs to do all three of the main facets of my reading perfectly: character, plot and prose. Having touched upon the plot and the character above, the prose equally follows a beautiful pattern, a present tense that, like Beukes' The Shining Girls, meanders through time. However, while Beukes' present tense occasionally reads slightly stiltedly, with the voice of someone who naturally tells stories in the past adapting to the present, Morgenstern's present tense feels as natural as walking. There were no points at which the active slipped to passive (or vice versa) when they shouldn't, and while the prose was never electrfyingly poetic, it simultaneously never slipped remotely close to purple.
Any review can't really capture the sensory mastery of Morgensten's writing. What I took from the novel is too complex really to put into words. Instead, it was an experience that touched me on many levels: emotionally, thoughtfully, my taste, my smell, my sight, all toughed by what the book provoked in my imagination. Very few books capture things with such a visceral necessity to imagined in full. An anecdote: I'm reading this book on the tube, mid-May, and the man opposite me catches my eye and starts a conversation about how wonderful the book is. Any person who has been on London transport knows that this is a cardinal sin, punishable by defenestration by the British Transport Police. But it didn't matter - it was a book that transcended even that most holy of holies. It is a book that will make you want to scream its praise from the rooftops, and make everyone you know read. It's sublime.