Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Review by Sophie Long

One of the great curses of being a creative writing student is that you find that you can no longer just read a book without analysing or finding fault. Of course, a book like The Night Circus that has been fawned over by agents, critics and even film studios cannot fail to disappoint some, but in this case the praise is also not entirely unjustified.

One of the major criticisms has been that the novel lacks a sense of place. It is true that the locations outside of the circus are pretty much interchangeable, with a few irritating cultural mistakes (characters from London ‘walk for two blocks’ and wear rings on their ‘pinkie’ fingers) but would the performers of a travelling circus really be attached to a particular place? The physical space of the circus is strongly evoked and passages like the Wishing Tree or Pool of Tears really display Morgenstern’s gift for description and detail. The physical world she creates is very detailed without there being overkill and it is easy to imagine oneself inside it. It also functions well as a common denominator amongst all the characters, and is a force that drives the plot forward. However, this is only in the latter half of the novel. These characters have all been plucked from somewhere and thrown into this ‘dark, dazzling world’ and yet they bring none of their former life with them. This was perhaps intentional, making them mysterious and otherworldly – but the effect is more flat and two dimensional. Perhaps this explains the criticism – not that the circus is the only fully realised space, but the characters themselves are just a little lacking.

Celia and Marco are well built in that their relationship with each other and the circus is very well realised. However, they themselves also seem to have no background, interests or relationship with anything outside of the circus and their challenge. This is understandable as the book progress and the stakes get higher, but in the beginning one imagines they would have different experiences. This would have given their characters some kind of visible journey, but as it is neither of them change much as a result of their being part of the circus, or through their relationship.

The Night Circus is beautiful, both in terms of the physical book's appearance and the dazzling details between the black-edged pages. It seems though that behind all this showmanship, Erin Morgenstern has been unable to translate this world as successfully onto the page as she might have wished. If she had perhaps attempted another draft, the annoying kinks that make it rather a frustrating read might have been ironed out.

Sophie Long works at Blackwell's bookshop and is an online contributor to New Welsh Review.

Next editor's blog: advance review of Chris Meredith's The Book of Idiots, his long-awaited fourth novel, published on 3 April by Seren.

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