17 December 2011

Swept Up in the Hype: My Thoughts On Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus


" 'Stories have changed, my dear boy,' the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. 'There are no more battles between good and evil, not monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue [...] There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.  Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister's story is part of many other stories and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting a a wolf should act? [...]'"

The passage above was one of the most striking in The Night Circus, not in terms of descriptive detail, which is certainly one of the strengths of the book that has been discussed at length by many other reviewers.  Instead the passage gets at something that lies at the heart of the book, it's purpose perhaps.  On one hand, The Night Circus,  is a fairy tale, a fable, a love story.  I went into the book ready to be enchanted, and what I found was something that didn't disappoint me, but did surprise me. It surprised me, because on the other hand, it is something dark and a little subversive and not at all traditional.

It is unlikely that this is the first review of this book that you've read, so you probably already know that the main story line of the book concerns a contest between two budding illusionists that plays out within a magical circus that appears in the middle of the night and disappears nearly as quickly.  As I began reading, I found what other readers have found:  an enchanting setting and compelling storyline.  I was also totally impressive by Morgenstern's use of the third person omniscient point of view (which isn't in all chapters), which is almost Dickensian.  Then, somewhere around the 100th page, I found myself finding flaws that other readers have also pointed out(see Ellen at Fat Books and Thin Women's review for one example): the multiple perspectives were distracting and the purpose of the contest at the center of the book was only vaguely defined.  Not enough exposition.  Maybe a little too much description.

However, I kept going and started to see the ends pull together, and also started to recognize something else.  This book, dare I say it, might just be trying to something different from other books about magic.  In fact, when I got to the quote above, which is on page 377 of 387, I realized that it might be something entirely different than what I thought it was, and now I want to read it again.  My new reading of the book, which was totally unexpected is just a little bit postmodern, and brings the world of the circus to life again for this particular reader, even though I really thought it was going to lose me in the middle.  What I see the book doing is playing with the familiar tropes, with ideas about magic and about illusion, which is, of course, all about perspective.  Morgenstern uses her characters to subvert the traditional narrative, and then reinstates it a bit towards the end. There is a whiff of the allegorical, with character names like Prospero and Widget and Mr. Grey, and then there are all those dang references to Shakespeare.  So, the book is playful, and new, and maybe almost as good as the hype, although I'm still not sure.  But I definitely recommend it and I can't wait to reread it.

Title: The Night Cirucs
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher/Price: Doubleday, $26.95
Date: 2011
Genre: General Fiction, Fantasy Elements

387  pages.
Where I got it:Powell's Indiespensible
Challenges: Gothic Reading Challenge

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1 comment:

  1. Great review of a book I also really appreciated. I agree, there is another layer to this book which the reader doesn't really grasp until close to the end.

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