This fall is crowded with new releases from literary heavyweights from Tom Perrotta and Jeffrey Eugenides to Joan Didion and Haruki Marukami. But it also offers two new names worth searching out: Erin Morgenstern and Chad Harbach, both of whose debut novels offer readers a chance to dive into fully realized worlds. In one, it’s a 19th-century traveling circus that’s open only at night; in the other, it’s a Midwestern baseball field. Both novels feature protagonists who are the very best at what they do. (Morgenstern and Harbach are no slouches, either.)
(Doubleday, 387 pp.)
Like Olympic athletes, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair have been groomed single-mindedly since childhood for a competition. The only problem: They have no idea what the rules of the game are, how long it will last, or how they’ll know if they’ve won. Oh, and – much to the irritation of their coaches – the two opponents have gone and fallen in love.
The two aren’t sprinters or spelling bee champs. They are 19th-century magicians who can really turn a raven into a writing desk, or vice versa. But they have to convince everyone in the audience that the real magic they’re seeing is fake. Fortunately, as Marco’s aloof mentor, the man in the grey suit, tells him, “People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.”
Magicians’ duels usually take place face to face, whether it’s Harry and Lord Voldemort or Merlin and Madam Mim in Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.” (Madam Mim turned into a purple dragon; Merlin turned into a virus. She caught him.) The two opponents in The Night Circus often aren’t even on the same continent. There also are no purple dragons in Morgenstern’s much-buzzed-about debut novel, but that’s because they wouldn’t go with the monochromatic color scheme.
Everything in the Cirque des Rêves is black, silver, or white, from the Ice Garden and the Cloud Maze to the fire-breathing paper dragon. The circus never advertises its arrival; it just appears. “Opens at nightfall. Closes at dawn,” a sign explains. Another sign warns that “Trespassers will be exsanguinated.”
Morgenstern intersperses details about the delights to be found there with the story of Celia’s and Marco’s training and the creation of the circus. Celia’s father, Hector Bowen (aka “Prospero the Enchanter) proposes the competition after the five-year-old shows up at his stage door after her mother commits suicide. Hector’s rival, the man in the grey suit, plucks Marco from an orphanage. As befits its wandering habits, “The Night Circus” jumps around in time. After a childhood of abuse, Celia gets a job as the circus’s illusionist, unaware of the identity of her opponent. Marco remains behind in London as a dogsbody to the circus’s ostensible owner, impresario Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, creating enchantments from a distance. As the two play off each other’s imaginations, the circus’s fame grows – as do the stakes in the competition.
“The Night Circus” isn’t without flaws. The large secondary cast is underdeveloped – with the exception of Widget and Poppet, twins who were born the night the circus opened – to the point where even violent death seems muted. But Morgenstern’s novel feels crafted from the fabric of a dream, and the circus itself never fails to astound. For me, the only real disappointment was that I couldn’t buy a ticket.
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