“The Circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
So begins one of the most enchanting journeys into a novel that I have taken in a very long time. Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is a sensory delight and a fascinating blend of extraordinary characters. Her background in theater has enriched her performance scenes with rich detailed depth.
Open only at night, the black and white striped tents of the circus are filled with amazing experiences and magical illusions. Only they are not illusions, they are the result of a magical duel between two contestants, competing in a contest they don’t fully understand, under the control of their mentors.
In 1873, years before the circus is imagined into being, two children are bound into a lifetime competition of talent and training in a wager made by two men. Celia by her unfeeling and distant father, and Marco as the protege of the man in the gray suit. (A man so mysterious, few can remember his name after he is introduced.) Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) provides the venue for this competition. Celia and Marco know very little about each other and at first are not even sure who their competition is to be. As their talents and magic grow, so does the circus. They are aided by a group of 6 people who believe themselves responsible for dreaming up the circus. But when illusion is reality – and reality is illusion – the manipulation of these people’s lives and memory starts to stretch them thin.
The tension of maintaining balance runs throughout the novel. Celia and Marco are told they cannot interfere with each other, but when they fall in love they must find a loophole, some way around the expected outcome of the wager. Celia begins to tire under the strain of keeping the circus running through her magic, other characters are hurt when things begin to spin out of control into chaos. Marco’s manipulation of the Circus’ creator Chandresh unintentionally results in a death. One of the other creators, Tara Burgess, begins to question what is really happening and pays a high price. The twins Poppet and Widget, born on opening night – one just before and one after the lighting of a central bonfire – can see the past and future; but will they be able to intercede in time when the balance tilts.
One of the themes I particularly appreciated in the book is the idea of whether it is better to not know everything, in order to enjoy and be entertained by the illusion.
“Chandresh prefers not to know all the ingredients, not to understand each technique. He claims such ignorance gives each dish life, makes it more than the sum of its parts.”
Morgenstern’s characters will enchant you and enfold you into their story as surely as she weaves in the performers and originators of the circus, and finds a unique solution for Celia and Marco.