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book review: fiction

Erin Morgensternhandout

Can we just talk, you and I, reader to reader? Can we dispense, just this once, with the formality of reviewer and review, and just talk about books?

One book, in particular. Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus.

There are many books, of course, and books of all kinds. There are good books and bad books and great books and terrible books. Books you can't bear to finish and books you resist letting go of. Books you get lost in and books that just lose you. Important books and books that don't matter at all, except to get you through the snatches of downtime in a too-busy week.

Occasionally, though, and all too rarely, you'll encounter a book that stops you in your tracks, a book the experience of which tears you open and leaves you gasping, a book that affects your head and your heart in equal measure. A book that makes the hair on your arms stand on end, and that has you picking up the phone or sending a text to tell everyone you know, "You have to read this."

The Night Circus is one of those books. One of those rare, wonderful, transcendent books that, upon finishing, you want to immediately start again.

The novel begins with a challenge between two aging – or perhaps ageless – magicians. Hector Bowen, who performs as Prospero the Enchanter, pits his illegitimate daughter, Celia, who has a natural talent for magic, against Marco, the foundling protégé of the mysterious Alexander. The challenge in a competition of magical skills and training, the nature and rules for which are – and will remain – entirely unclear.

The venue for the challenge is a mysterious circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams). "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." Inside the iron gates of the circus is a world of wonders, a dream-state that "Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn," a warren of black-and-white striped tents, each housing marvels that surpass the imagination, an experience so life-changing it begins to gather a cult following who will research and travel around the world (despite the circus's lack of tour schedules or advertising) to enter the nocturnal marvel over and over again. A cauldron with a flame that never goes out; a growing, living garden of ice; a Wishing Tree; a beautiful magician who can bring books to life, and who vanishes at will … the circus is seemingly endless, a mystery in and of itself.

Celia joins the circus, while Marco stays at a distance behind the scenes, but their actions are connected, all part of the challenge their sponsors imposed upon them, a competition that turns into a dance, and a courtship, and a dream.

In the world of The Night Circus, magic is real (the rings used to seal the challenge, for example, burn into and vanish within Celia and Marco, leaving them with scars but also helpless to resist their involvement in the competition), but there is no literary trickery here. The story is told in rich but straightforward prose, with a linear narrative that unfolds logically and systematically, although it has the tone of a dream. Morgenstern's storytelling is tightly controlled, free of excess and purple embellishment, utterly realistic and rooted in the human. Her characters are well-drawn, with even minor players possessing compelling backstories and traits (which is helpful when seemingly minor players unexpectedly step forward to claim their rightful places in the larger narrative).

I'm loath to describe the book too much, or to oversell it: The Night Circus is best experienced for oneself.

And I use the word "experienced" advisedly. The act of reading The Night Circus is a unique, unforgettable, experience that will transport you not only into the world of the novel, but back into your own reading history: Reading it will remind you of what it was like to read those other great, transcendent books of your past.

It's not just me: In the days since I finished reading Morgenstern's book, I've spoken to several other people who have read it, other dedicated readers, and they've all said the same thing: "It reminded me of …" One friend said it reminded him of reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time, for another it was Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. For me, reading The Night Circus reminded me of being 13 and reading John Irving's The World According to Garp for the first time, and, a decade later, of being introduced to the wonder that is John Crowley's Little, Big.

To be clear, it's not that The Night Circus reminds us of these books; it's that the experience of reading The Night Circus is on a par with the greatest reading experiences of our lives. To wander into Le Cirque des Rêves is to wander into the finest of our own reading.

Will it last for me? Will I reread it voraciously, as I continue to reread Garp? It's too early to tell.

I will say this, though: Late in the book, there's a line that I scribbled down in my notebook, and I'm already picturing it as a companion piece to the tattoo I drew from Little, Big. No, I'm not going to tell you which phrase; discover it for yourself. Or discover your own. The Night Circus welcomes all visitors.

Robert J. Wiersema's Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, will be published next week.