The hook: Two gifted children, Celia and Marco, are pitted against each other in a magical and deadly dare set up by a pair of aging magicians. Unbeknownst to the children, they are manipulated by their mentors and become opponents in a formidable challenge set to last for years and years. Prepare to be enchanted, bewitched and ultimately transported by this knockout debut novel.
The plot: Celia and Marco perform magical illusions at the wondrous circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, that appears without warning on the outskirts of cities around the world. Opening at nightfall and closing at dawn, the black-and-white-striped tents then vanish as mysteriously as they appeared. As this “circus of dreams” travels around the world, it is followed by a collection of fanatical devotees, “rêveurs,” who dress only in black and white like the circus tents, with just a splash of red to identify them and to allude to the secrets and dangers beneath the smoke and mirrors of the shows. Eventually Celia and Marco fall deeply in love but also become aware that they are opponents in an impossible struggle. The grand feats of illusion they produce for — and against — each other become more and more intricate and astonishing: An ice garden blooms and paper birds fly; when the lovers touch, the whole room blushes and the chandeliers rattle. As more of the other performers become unknowingly involved in their fates, the circus begins to unravel and the consequences become dire for everyone.
The inspiration: The first inkling for the novel was unexpected. Morgenstern, who studied theatre and studio art at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, says she was working on a different story but got so bored with it she sent the characters to the circus out of sheer desperation. “Everything started with the circus itself as a location,” she says. “The story developed from a lot of exploratory writing about the circus, creating the world it came from and its inhabitants and creators.” Morgenstern was also inspired by a play called Sleep No More, which was itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and performed as an immersive experience by the innovative British theatre company Punchdrunk. She says most of her writings are “fairy tales, in one way or another.”
Talking points: The love of magic, the magic of love, the power of dreams, the flimsy borders of reality and the question of destiny: Can we change our own fates? — Diane Schoemperlen
Schoemperlen is the Governor General’s Award–winning author of Forms of Devotion; her latest novel is At a Loss for Words.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, $32 (hardcover), $10 (ebook)
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