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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Night Circus - a book review

This was supposed to be a food blog. Years ago. But I do like breaking rules and this is only the second post after all, so it's not like we've established anything or the theme is firmly set in stone.

So here is a book review on a food blog, because Lina likes to drive Lulu a little crazy every once in a while ;)
P.S.: This is spoiler-free (aside from what you can guess from the book jacket), so feel free to pick up a copy after reading this review and tell us in the comments what you thought!

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THE NIGHT CIRCUS - ERIN MORGENSTERN (2011)


The circus arrives without warning
No announcements precede it...
It is simply there, when yesterday it was not

Mystery, magic and a dreamlike playfulness surround the „Cirque de RĂªves of Erin Morgenstern’s imagination. Two magicians challenge each other to a duel-by-proxy. Young students are chosen. Preparations take years. The venue is a travelling circus, only open from nightfall til dawn.

The book’s strengths lie in the atmosphere.The world-building is clear-cut but elusive, utterly mystifying but believable, and filled to the brim with imagery and scents. Its meticulous descriptions evoke memories of forgotten realities and wishful dreams all the same.
The circus is simply marvelous. Its black-and-white tents fill the reader’s mind from the first page, and every tent that is added fits perfectly into the already established illusion. Gravity-defying acrobats and tattooed contortionists stand alongside wild cat tamers and Tarot card readers. For daydreamers and “American Horror Story” fans alike, Morgenstern’s fiction is a perfectly built playground.

Even outside of the "Circus of Dreams", the descriptions of rainy days in Victorian era London, private "Midnight Dinners" with retired ballet teachers, or a boy's simple struggles on an American apple farm manage to paint such a beautiful picture that I couldn't put the book down. (I even forgot to eat, on the second day that I was binge-reading, and only noticed when my growling stomach grew louder than the voices in my head.)

But while the "Night Circus" characters are colourful and imaginative - and the author even manages to include queer and diverse characters without seeming forced or "filling a quota" - they are also somewhat... plain.

They are strong and full of willpower and defiance only in “tell”, not in “show”. The author wishes us to believe that her main characters are strong, but gives no evidence of their strength until very late in the book.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but… a person can only endure certain things for so long.

This applies largely to the main characters, Celia and Marco. For some reason, side characters like Tsukiko (the japanese contortionist), Poppet (the red-haired twin), and Bailey (the farm boy) accumulate more meaningful backstory and character development than the mains. To me, they were the ones who brought the book together and kept me going.(It is quite telling that, if you try to find fanfiction on the matter, most are focussed on the side characters just mentioned, instead of Celia and Marco.) 

What bothers me the most about the book is the love story. This is hard to explain without spoiling parts of the story lines, so it might sound elusive and weird to most of you, but love in this book is turned on and off like a light switch. While the author takes great care in establishing a somewhat believable, romantic young love story between two characters, they seem to fall out of love for no reason in particular, other than, you know, "the main is supposed to end up with someone else, as you can already guess from the book jacket, so I guess these two have to split up now."

And when it comes to actually making the main characters fall in love with each other, it is as if one day they just wake up and decide to have been in love all along. The timing is all wrong, and while the rest of the writing is so good that I easily believe in levitating objects and magicians banned inside trees, I don't buy the simple fact that these two people are supposed to be in love.

And that's kind of a bummer.

In many reviews and ads that I have read, the book is described as "dark" or "dramatic". I cannot attest to that, finding it more like a fairytale or a vintage fantasy. The dramatic parts are thoroughly expectable (except maybe for one minor incident) and in my opinion fail to deliver the same sort of imagination and flair that the circus landscape itself possesses. The other negative point that I found prominent was the passing of time, which seems to stretch the wrong (boring) parts of the plot and glances over important highlights (like, um, the climax, which makes all of the subplots tie perfectly and easily together in about 2 pages - but I guess that could also be a sign of quality and good planning?)

It's quite possible that I over-analyzed one part or skipped over another, so please read the (very good despite any and all criticism!) book for yourself and tell me what you thought. If it doesn't make you want to go to a circus, I don't know what will!

Your Lina.

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