First line: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” Talk about setting a mood! At first I thought “huh, interesting.” but felt no real investment. As I wandered through bits of the circus it became so immersive that by the end I thought this opening line completely brilliant. It grows on you, seeps into your soul and stays there. As a first line, it’s enough of a hook to make you read on to the next page. As a synopsis of the whole story, it’s fantastic.
Mechanics: My biggest issue with this story is that it’s in third person, present tense. I realize this is the fashion and fad these days for literary novels, but I hate it. It makes everything distant and cold. It makes me feel as though I’m looking through a glass window at the action. A dirty glass window. A dirty glass window with the words “wash me” written in the dirt. That said, I think parts of it simply had to be this way. There are two narratives going on here…one is meant to describe what you, the reader, are doing as you make your way through the circus. That has to be third person, present tense. The rest is the backstory of the circus itself. To me, that part would have been more intimate told in the normal past tense. I found my head twisting the present tense into past tense as I read which threw me out of the story. However, the story itself is fascinating. So gripping, in fact, that I pressed onward despite the mechanics. The tense is easy to forget when people are talking, and since there is more dialog in the second half of the story that might be why some think the story picks up then. It’s not the story, it’s the mechanics. No matter how much in fashion it is, it’s simply not comfortable to read for any length of time for the average person. This is not a script…and shouldn’t read like one. There, done ranting. Don’t let this stop you from reading the book because truly the story more than makes up for my little pet peeve.
Voice: I found the voice to be haunting and captivating. The sentence structure is simple and straightforward. It sucks you in much the way I imagine the circus would if you were to stumble upon it.
Plot: This is a literary novel, not a thriller. It’s not action packed, but it is STORY packed. By that I mean the entire story is like entering the circus it describes. You cautiously inch your way forward, discovering more and more as the story unfolds until you are up at 2 am trying to get to the end and hoping against hope that it can wrap up this enchanting tale in a way that won’t leave you wanting. Well done, Ms. Morgenstern, well done.
Characters: I have to admit, due to the glass lens of present tense, the characters all feel a bit distant. I’m not sure I cared so much about them as I did about the circus itself. I think this might even be exactly what the author intends. Even one of the main characters spends her time finding a way for the circus to sustain itself without her. The same could be said for the story. I found this fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story before where I didn’t really care about the characters at all and yet was so captivated to see it unfold. I’m still not sure what to make of that and how it was done. I suspect I’ll be coming back to this story to read it again when I’ve let it sit. The real main character through the entire story is the circus. I have to admit, I’m in love with the circus and now have an intense longing to decorate in black and white.
The Night Circus haunts me. I find myself thinking of it at odd times, like the reveurs in the story. Wishing the story it tells is a true story. Hoping it’s real. Needing it to be real. If it grabs you like it did me, then perhaps you’ll join me. Put on a black coat and a red scarf and come on out. I’ll be wandering around outside the city in the evenings, looking for the circus.