“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
The Night Circus—the book, as well as a circus it contains— appears to have one primary purpose: to delight, enchant and charm. Both do the job exceedingly well.
The tale has two parallel plots—or exhibits, if you will. The story of the circus and the story of Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen—the game they are induced into, how they fall in love and the consequences of their entangling. The narrative constantly weaves back and forth in time—past, present and future. The plot is interspersed with little snippets of second-person narration, the narrator taking the reader by the hand through the circus, its various tents, its array of oddities. These not only foreshadow different events in the plot, but also induce in the reader the sheer pleasure of attending the circus almost first hand. Each snippet of plot mimics a tent, a section of the plot the reader gets to peek into and enjoy, before stepping out again and into another tent, another tributary or rabbit hole that eventually make up the entire novel, the same way the tents make up the entire circus—each one seemingly an island, all of which turn out to be interconnected.
The story begins in media res; out of the blue: “the circus arrives without warning”. It is a curiosity set up in front of us, inviting and enticing. It introduces Celia Bowen and her father Hector Bowen, who binds her as a player in a game, or contest, against his opponent Alexander and his player Marco. The circus is created as a unique thought experiment-style battle ground—the chessboard they will play upon until one of them loses. Being a circus, the entire entourage that comprise it become unwittingly involved, as well as a number of the circus’s most ardent fans—who call themselves rêveurs and pursue the circus from place to place as the circus moves around the world.
Celia’s speciality is physical manipulation—an expertise she picks up form her father, innately and through influence. Marco spins and entirely different brand of magic, one comprised of misdirection, symbology and scholarly study. Both players are carefully picked—they must be evenly matched enough for a fair fight. They must complement each other enough to make the game interesting and sustainable enough. This backfires, and they fall hotly in love.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the circus is make to physically resemble a chessboard—it is coloured black and white, filled with two centrepieces surrounded by secondary ones, a few of which playing more significant roles, the rest merely unwitting pawns. Nestled at the heart of the circus and of the novel is also an elaborate clock, chiming out the time on the hour, as well as repeated references to the sound of a clock’s ticking. The novel’s pace is at times explosive, at other times dreamlike and unhurried. Together with the black and white setting, the ticking of the clock and the novel’s form, The Night Circus feels very much like a game of chess, the players’ every move increasingly vital as they move toward an endgame complicated by their growing feelings for each other.
The Night Circus is one of my best reads of 2020, if not the best read. Sometimes, when I read a book this great, this utterly spellbinding, a fear grows in me towards the end of the novel of a disappointing ending, of an unceremonious fizzling out. But Morgenstern delivers right up till the end. The Night Circus closes magically as a loving tribute to the circus, the novel and to the reader who reads, who, by this time, has gotten wholly involved. It is a fitting goodbye to a circus and a dreamlike world so difficult to leave.