2011; Harvill Secker.
Note: A few minor spoilers below.
I chose The Night Circus as my Magical Realism book for the Literary Exploration challenge. Magical realism is traditionally the genre which I enjoy the most. By nature it’s difficult to define, but essentially the ‘magical realism’ tag can be applied to stories which are generally realistic, but which contain fantastical elements. The archetypal One Hundred Years of Solitude blends magic and reality perfectly. Or, for a more recent example, look to Life of Pi, which contains scenarios unlikely enough to count as magic, though from a distance the world appears to be the same as ours. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t count The Night Circus as part of this genre, though such categorisations are nebulous at best. Better to take the book on its own merits.
The story of The Night Circus jumps around in the decade surrounding 1896, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of nonlinear time. The titular Circus appears without warning, is open only at night, and disappears just as suddenly. It’s a magical, monochrome realm, where everything is always perfect – quite the opposite of a real circus. In the Night Circus, there are wondrous, impossible displays, true magicians, and all manner of subtle sorcery which ensure a wonderful evening. I found this infinitely preferable to my experience of real circuses, which involve a lot of noise, impolite crowds, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the smell of shit. This magical, dreamlike circus immediately drew me in. “This is the precise flavor the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.”
As always, all is not as it seems, and the Night Circus is actually just an arena for a contest. Two magicians, Marco and Celia, are bound to each other by their masters, and pushed into a competition. I was really excited by this – a magical duel, stretched over years, sounded awesome. Each master delights in being vague, and the rules of the contest even more so. In fact, for two thirds of the novel, one of the contestants is not even aware who they are up against. Sadly, a game which nobody is sure how to play – not the contestants themselves, and certainly not the reader – is not a good recipe for conflict.
So let’s talk about conflict.
The two main characters, Celia and Marco, are magicians, able to influence reality in a number of impossible ways. They’re pitted against one another from a young age, and quickly dedicate their lives to the contest. However, the stakes are never clear, and each magician spends a lot of time trying to find out for themselves. It’s nearly impossible to engage with the contest or the players within it, because there’s no clear goal or rules. Naturally, the two young magicians fall in love. Even this felt arbitrary and unconvincing, despite the surface beauty and wonder of their blossoming relationship (such as it is). The love subplot is also intended to increase the conflict between the magicians and their masters. However, with the stakes so low, there was never the sense of rebellious desperation you might expect. Each sinister master remains quietly benevolent, in action if not speech.
The closest thing The Night Circus has to an antagonist is Marco’s trainer and father figure, the shadowy Alexander. His motivations are generally unclear, beyond his desire for Marco to win the contest (although, again, this desire doesn’t stretch to actually telling Marco what constitutes winning). He’s sinister, apparently omniscient, and appears to contribute to the death of a character – but it’s a minor, undeveloped character, so even this fails to increase the tension or sense of urgency.
There’s also a number of subplots involving other people connected with the circus, especially Bailey, who is torn between his family’s pressure to stay home, and his own desire to leave and be part of the circus. The story visits him at various stages of his child- and young adulthood, where he becomes enamoured with one of the circus performers and is eventually called upon to save the Circus. However, even this subplot lacks much tension, because in the Circus, everything is perfect.
Bear with me here. The biggest draw of the circus setting is its difference to a real circus – that is, it’s clean, beautiful, and fun. Visitors experience events and displays which could only occur in dreams. Despite the wonder this implies, this is where The Night Circus falls down. In the real world, nothing is utterly flawless. The Circus is – and so becomes unreal. Things are unusual, certainly, and of course the reality-warping conjuration is obviously not just sleight of hand. I couldn’t help feeling that if only the Circus had gone further one way or the other – been more real, or more fantastical – it could have worked. It’s beautiful, yes, but when every setting and feature is perfect, it becomes oddly drab. Everything feels constructed, the conclusions foregone. With no character conflict to speak of, and a one-dimensional setting, the story quickly dropped into tedium.
I did my best to focus on the wonder. I tried to open my mind to awe and surprise. I wanted something magical, but still real; fantastic, but subtle. The Night Circus had some wonderful imagery, likable characters, and an interesting structure – but in the end, it felt shallow and cold.