I was given this book as a present and began reading with no idea of what it was about. It engaged me within the first couple of pages and I finished it in three sittings.
‘The circus arrives without warning … It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.’
I suppose the best way to describe this book is ‘a fairy tale for adults’. Le Cirque des Rèves(circus of dreams), which opens from dusk to dawn, is a magical place where the artists do not rely on trickery to deceive their audiences but perform feats of real magic.
‘Prospero the Enchanter uses a pocket knife to slit his daughter’s fingertips open, one by one, watching wordlessly as she cries until calm enough to heal them, drips of blood slowly creeping backward.’
Hector Bowen, stage name Prospero the Enchanter, wagers his six-year-old daughter Celia in a contest of magic skill against Marco, protégé of his rival Alexander. We suspect at the outset that there is something not quite nice about this contest. Neither of the competitors has consented to it; they do not know initially who their opponent is to be, what is the precise nature of the competition, when it will begin or end, or how it will be judged.
‘[Celia] opens her own umbrella with some difficulty, and as she swings the canopy of black silk over her head, she and her umbrella vanish, leaving only drips of water falling onto the empty pavement.’
While the circus travels the world, mysteriously appearing and disappearing, thrilling audiences wherever it goes, Marco remains in London but connected to it through Isobel, the young fortune-teller. By means of a magical conduit, the fire in the circus courtyard, he can also exercise some control over its destiny. Celia meantime travels with the circus as its star illusionist, working her own magic to devise and improve the attractions.
‘ “How are you managing to keep everyone from aging?” Celia asks after a while.
‘ “Very carefully,” Marco answers. “And they are aging, albeit extremely slowly. How are you moving the circus?”
‘ “On a train.” ‘
Against the intentions of Hector and Alexander, Celia and Marco collaborate in building ever more imaginative tents and features. They fall in love and want to run away. But they cannot. Bound as they are, as soon as they think about doing so they suffer great pain. They begin to realise that their relationship can only end badly for one or other of them. The circus is a dreamlike place wherein they, Chandresh, his associates – architect Barris, fashion designer Mme Pradva, clockmaker Herr Thiessen and twins Lanie and Tara, – the contortionist and former ‘competitor’ Tsukiko and all the other performers are trapped in a time warp, never ageing. Asking too many questions can bring deadly danger.
Only Widget and Poppet Murray, born on the night of the circus’s opening, are growing older. They have their own subplot, involving Bailey Clarke, a relatively normal boy who has broken into the circus for a dare. As teenagers, the three become firm friends, sharing stories and marvellous confections. Narrated in parallel with the main plot but in a separate time frame, their escapades add mystery and suspense to the whole. As the time frames coalesce, it gradually becomes clear that Bailey’s future is irresistibly connected with the future of the circus though the precise why and how are left until the final chapters.
‘ “I don’t want to win,” Marco says. “I want you. Truly, Celia, do you not understand that?”
‘Celia says nothing, but tears begin to roll down her cheeks. She does not wipe them away.’
Somehow Celia and Marco must escape their fatal contract, but to do so has to involve magic of a spectacular, never-before-performed kind. And Bailey has his part to play in that too.
After reading a couple of black magic novels by Dennis Wheatley and recently watching (again) the two films of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I should have had my fill of wizardry. As it turned out, I had not nearly enough!
The Night Circus is wizardry of a whole different kind – a magical tale brilliantly told by a writer with her own magical imagination.