I have a neurological quirk called synaesthesia, in which a stimulus to one sense produces a simultaneous response from another. One of the strongest ways that manifests for me is that when I listen to music, the music has colour; I like to take those colours and spin images and daydreams out of them, so in my mind it’s a little like wandering through vibrant clouds and castles made of song. This is a very difficult thing to describe to people who do not have it. Le Cirque des Rêves of The Night Circus feels like something a synaesthetic mind would whisk up during a powerful song: Snatches of colour caught and shaped into a dream that marches to its own rhythm, and fades with the music’s end. Something that a minority of people can visit, and no one can really understand.
Marco and Celia, and the magicians’ struggle they are destined to be locked into as they age, are ostensibly our protagonists, but I would argue that the main character of the novel is the circus itself, and their competition exists primarily both to give it life and to lend a sense of fatalism to the ending or transformation we know has to come, as surely as the first falling leaf means the rest have to die. Sometimes I wondered why they didn’t walk away, a question that does eventually receive an answer, but also doesn’t really matter. The characters in this novel are distant and feylike and sometimes as obtuse in their motivations as those very fey, and the only times they rise off the page are when the outside world touches them, or when they spin a wonder great enough that they manage to touch each other.
Marco in particular embodies that dichotomy. With an abandoned paramour, he’s so cold and far away he might as well be made of stone, and even with a mentor figure he seems callous and disconnected, with only the most absent-minded regard for the man’s humanity and his own impact upon it. He’d be easy to dislike if he didn’t transform at the mere presence of Celia, if the chemistry between the two of them weren’t so intense that they are both elevated by it. Even Celia, who is more charitably depicted, especially in her friendship with a clockmaker who builds a devoted following sharing their love of the circus, seems to gain more presence on the page in everything to do with Marco, even simply in her playful collaborations with him from afar. It is definitely not a romance, but it is quite a good love story.
Sometimes the behaviour of everyone, but especially the female characters who wander around unchaperoned and unconcerned, seems anachronistic, but Le Cirque des Rêves and everyone who touches it seem disconnected from time and place, occupants of a fragile bubble that liberates them even as it seems ever on the verge of popping. For some of them, it does; like most beautiful things, The Night Circus is often delicately sad.
Much of its beauty lies in the prose. I’m fairly certain that if Morgenstern were to describe the grass growing, I would read it. If the human characters are ephemeral, the circus leaps off the page in such vibrant fullness of life that it’s one of the few books to make me wish I could paint, so I had somewhere for the images to go. I’m reminded at least a little of the writing of Patricia McKillip, whom I also consider a master of rich prose and dreamlike fantasy. I really enjoy the clockwork motif that runs through the story and contrasts with its feeling of timelessness.
After much hopping back and forth between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the plot arrives at a conclusion that is adequate but slightly forced, and largely unremarkable, having never really been the point anyway. I did feel like the punches were pulled slightly, like it would have been more authentic to let go of certain characters, to give their last choice harsher consequences. But if I’m honest, I also didn’t care all that much, as I never really saw the whole concept of the magicians’ duel as more than a framing device.
I think if you like your novels to be story-driven above all else, this one is unlikely to grip you, and it may not capture the crowd looking for a character piece either. It’s full of dreamlike gaps in logic, and character consistency is knowingly sacrificed at the altar of whimsy. If, however, you are the type to be entranced by colour and light and poetic imagery, if you’re the type to merrily stare into space while you wander from dream to memory, if in short you are a navel gazer and a daydreamer like me, The Night Circus deserves a place on your shelf.