YA Book Reviews

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning.”

Le Cirque des Rêves. The Circus of Dreams. The Night Circus. The complex “board” for a game of sorts, a test of illusion and manipulation, sheer will and innate ability. A challenge, with only one victor. A mirror you look in to see the other half of yourself.

This review is surprisingly difficult to write. Reading this book was like seeing a dream you had cherished greatly become real before your very eyes, or watching the life and death of a single red rose. I felt strongly as if I was watching a chess match from beginning to end – for how often the characters insisted it was not like chess, the structure of the book as a whole certainly was. I am strictly a chess amateur, but there is always the same pattern when I play with a close friend of mine: Part I, when my opponent and I begin deciding what our strategy should be, and feeling each other out without making any explicit moves towards or away from the other. Part II, when we attack head-on; my wits and quick thinking against his careful planning and skill, minor pieces leaving the board to be replaced with stronger ones, no longer testing the waters but coming face to face with each other’s expert maneuvers. Part III, when a key piece is lost, and suddenly you witness your fortress tear apart at the seams until it is simply the two of you, no longer able to win or lose, stuck at a stalemate where each of you is too clever to do anything except purposefully end the game and stand to lose a part of yourself.

“Standing on the platform in the midst of the crowd, high enough that they can be viewed clearly from all angles, are two figures, still as statues.

They stand entwined but not touching, their heads tilted towards each other. Lips frozen in the moment before (or after) a kiss.
Though you watch them for some time they do not move. No stirring of fingertips or eyelashes. No indication that they are even breathing.
“They cannot possibly be real,” someone nearby remarks.
Many patrons only glance at them before moving on, but the longer you watch, the more you can detect the subtlest of motions. The change in the curve of a hand as it hovers near an arm. The shifting angle of a perfectly balanced leg. Each of them always gravitating towards each other. 

Yet still they do not touch.”

This is how the challenge has gone for many, many years, and yet Celia and Marco are the ones who stand to break the tradition apart. At first it is in a much less noticeable way, from the way the circus is constructed and moved, to who is picked to be the pieces in the challenge of the circus. Then it grows, tent by tent, Celia and Marco each showing their hand to the other – falling deeper in love to someone they have never truly met, and yet know almost as well, if not better, than they know themselves. When it crests, it as if the whole world quakes beneath them. This kind of love that they share with each other is not the kind you see in your average romance novels: where a character may gravitate towards their love interest like a moth to a flame, Celia and Marco collide with a force that echoes deep into your very bones. It is a fiery, passionate form of self-destruction, suffocating in its intensity, but purer than an uncut gemstone for all of its disturbing beauty. This is not the kind of romance that you would sigh after reading and say, “oh, I wish I could be swept away on an adventure like that!” It is difficult and melancholy with the pain of raw emotion that torments and shakes you long after the memory has faded away. 

“The sign outside this tent is accompanied by a small box full of smooth black stones. The text instructs you to take one with you as you enter. Inside, the tent is dark, the ceiling covered with open black umbrellas, the curving handles hanging down like icicles. In the center of the room there is a pool. A pond enclosed within a black stone wall that is surrounded by white gravel. The air carries the salty tinge of the ocean. You walk over to the edge to look inside.

The gravel crunches beneath your feet. It is shallow, but it is glowing. A shimmering, shifting light cascades up through the surface of the water. A soft radiance, enough to illuminate the pool and the stones that sit at the bottom. Hundreds of stones, each identical to the one you hold in your hand. The light beneath filters through the spaces between the stones. Reflections ripple around the room, making it appear as though the entire tent is underwater.

You sit on the wall, turning your black stone over and over in your fingers. The stillness of the tent becomes a quiet melancholy. Memories begin to creep forward from hidden corners of your mind. Passing disappointments. Lost chances and lost causes. Heartbreaks and pain and desolate, horrible loneliness. Sorrows you thought long forgotten mingle with still-fresh wounds. The stone feels heavier in your hand.

When you drop it in the pool to join the rest of the stones, you feel lighter. As though you have released something more than a smooth polished piece of rock.”

If I could spend this entire review just quoting passages about the Circus, I would. There are so many excellent ones that resonated deeply with me. To be frank, the best part of this book was the writing. I can’t say that I have ever read a book that was so full of imagery and imagination amongst the hundreds of books I have read in my lifetime. The entire novel felt real, the same way that you can wake up in a dream and not realize that you are still asleep. I could picture myself in every tunnel, every tent, as if I was the patron and they were the ones watching me. 

Each of the characters was fleshed out and developed in an incredibly unique way. The story progressed with them, moved next to them in their carts on the circus train, watched their performances, and attended Midnight Dinners right alongside them. Even talking about them feels like dancing as they danced with the grace of gymnasts. When they cracked, you cracked with them; when they laughed or cried, your own tears were a hair’s breath away. It is a magical experience to be a part of this work of art. It is a story you never want to end, but you know when the time comes that you cannot hold on to it any longer. 

I honestly cannot imagine how Erin managed to make every single piece of this book feel so vibrant and alive, yet she executed it perfectly with immeasurable skill and aptitude. There is no possible way for me to describe each individual aspect of this book with the justice it deserves, so all I can say is that I highly implore you to pick it up and give it a chance. Not everybody will enjoy it as irrevocably as I do, but I hope that it touches you in a new yet strangely familiar way nonetheless. 

“The step through the gates that takes you from painted group to bare grass feels heavy. You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Revês and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.

You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is a dream.”

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7 thoughts on “The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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