Magic in Black & White - THE NIGHT CIRCUS / by Brenna Proczko


You come across it by chance. You are mildly charmed, so you visit again. And again. You realize it's become a sneaking obsession, and suddenly you are chasing it across the globe. You're a rêveur, a dreamer, and you seek Le Cirque des Rêves, which appears without notice, and opens at sunset. Wear a red scarf. 

The fact that you are the first character introduced in Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus, could be too precious (or obnoxious), but she keeps the first and subsequent second-person sections brief and sensory-focused. And for all that she develops this very distinct place, (or event, however you want to categorize it), Morgenstern remains rather at a distance with her prose. I think that's what saves this novel from becoming flatly precocious and instead feels more like a keepsake than kitsch. The book-jacket summary infuses much more urgency than you actually find in this book; it is more like an Advent calendar than a heist movie (or, if you prefer, more The Illusionist than The Prestige).  

The setting is ahistorical Victorian, though that's mostly established via the descriptions of mutton-sleeve dresses, bowler hats, and trains rather than any particular historical landmarks or vocabulary. The sentences are more Hemingway than Dickens, but the lack of ornate language and complicated syntax allows the magic to become matter-of-fact and fantastical all at once. 

Celia Bowen, introduced as a 5-year-old child delivering a suicide note from her mother to her father (Prospero, a magician who previously was unaware of her existence), is a cipher for much of the book. Her abilities, operating primarily around breaking and repairing, appearing and disappearing, are grounded in visceral experience. She is attractive, but she can also change her hair color on a whim and is literally a sorceress with a needle and thread, so maybe don't put too much stock in that appearance. She embodies magic. 


Speaking of appearances, Marco is her opponent, the proxy challenger, and a guy whose looks come into play a bit. I say proxy, as the battle is in fact between Prospero and Marco's patron, "Alexander," a grey suit that sets little Marco in a room of books about magic and says little to nurture or guide him. Marco has notebooks and cutouts and models and card tricks; he intellectualizes magic. 

Prospero and Alexander have been battling for, oh, probably centuries, which is why a couple decades spent raising a pair of challengers is no big. The fact that the challengers don't really know what their goal is or who they're battling or why... well, it could be a gaping plot hole, but it's really more of a gap. Because this story isn't about Celia and Marco. Or, not just. 

It's about the circus. 

The circus is the forum for the competition, the head vs the heart only magic; but of course, you can't have a circus with only one tent. You have dozens. And so you have a world of magical carnies. You have proprietors, you have craftsmen, you have performers, you have children. You have Bailey, who becomes a juvenile rêveur; you have You, enticed to enter each new chapter as if it is a tent, a room, a nook, a cave of wonders. 


I wish that this could be adapted into a graphic novel; it's so intensely visual, the dialogue so minimal and plot rather secondary that I feel the reason the book doesn't always click on the first read is that it's meant to be in pictures. But I love to revisit, I love to imagine the rich contrasts in the black and white tents, the heartbreaks and triumphs of the circle of characters, as surreal as a dream.