“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.”
I was very disappointed with Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel after reading all the praise that both bloggers and professional critics have been showering her with. I feel like writers are getting caught up in creating ever more phantasmagoric imagery without sparing much thought for their poor plots. In The Night Circus, these elaborate verbal sculptures describe sideshows and are meant, I suppose, to evoke intense pathos. Instead, they seem like self-conscious attempts to be poignant. Here’s one of those sideshows:
The Pool of Tears
The sign outside this tent is accompanied by a small box full of smooth black stones. The text instructs you to take one with you as you enter.
Inside, the tent is dark, the ceiling covered with open black umbrellas, the curving handles hanging down like icicles.
In the center of the room there is a pool. A pond enclosed within a black stone wall that is surrounded by white gravel.
The air carries the salty tinge of the ocean.
You walk over to the edge to look inside. The gravel crunches beneath your feet.
It is shallow, but it is glowing. A shimmering, shifting light cascades up through the surface of the water. A soft radiance, enough to illuminate the pool and the stones that sit at the bottom. Hundreds of stones, each identical to the one you hold in your hand. The light beneath filters through the spaces between the stones.
Reflections ripple around the room, making it appear as though the entire tent is underwater.
You sit on the wall, turning your black stone over and over in your fingers.
The stillness of the tent becomes a quiet melancholy.
Memories begin to creep forward from hidden corners of your mind. Passing disappointments. Lost chances and lost causes. Heartbreaks and pain and desolate, horrible loneliness.
Sorrows you thought long forgotten mingle with still-fresh wounds.
The stone feels heavier in your hand.
When you drop it in the pool to join the rest of the stones, you feel lighter. As though you have released something more than a smooth polished piece of rock.
Morgenstern is cryptic without cause. The circus exists only as a venue for the current round in an ongoing rivalry between two men, Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A. H. Each chooses the piece that will represent him. Prospero selects his magically endowed daughter Celia and Mr. A. H. picks a talented orphan, Marco. The board is set. The pieces are ready. The game begins in earnest though we have no idea of what’s happening. The reader is kept in the dark about the rules of the game and strangely enough, in the same boat as the players. It seems that each player must outdo the other with outlandish exhibits (like the pool of tears) for the circus although it isn’t really clear how these creations are judged. Later, we are told that at the end of the game, only one player is left alive so by definition, the game ends when one of the players dies. All the pressure that’s built up over the first half of the book with the careful grooming of Marco and Celia into magical adversaries fizzles out in the most unacceptable way when the two (predictably) fall in love. Their romance is clichéd and makes The Night Circus’ already thin plot, somewhat hackneyed.
Thanks to the shards of a memory of an unpleasant childhood experience at the Madison Square Garden, circuses have always made me nauseous. The Night Circus, on the other hand, left me feeling impassive.