The Night Circus was first published last September, and was one of the “It Books” at BEA 2011. I managed to get an ARC, and for much of last autumn, I read one glowing review after another...but couldn’t seem to bring myself around to reading the book itself. My interest in it languished until one evening this past spring, in New York City, when I was immersed in the mind-warping theatrical weirdness that is Sleep No More (and which Teresa and (Other) Jenny both describe far better than I can possibly manage)--and learned, in a conversation after the show, that it had inspired Erin Morgenstern’s “Le Cirque des Rêves.” That nugget stuck with me, and when I decided that I wanted to do some seasonally-appropriate reading this month, The Night Circus was on my short list. But it’s a long book, and my “advance” copy is well past its “best by” date anyway, so I chose to read it by ear instead of in print. The audio version of The Night Circus is performed by Jim Dale, who is probably best known for his work on the Harry Potter audiobooks, and therefore has a pretty solid background in otherworldly fiction.
Morgenstern has a real talent for physical description, and I was impressed by how clearly her words evoked the sights and sounds and people of the circus for me. That said, I'm not sure how I would have perceived them if I HADN'T seen Sleep No More, because my experience with that production definitely influenced what I imagined Le Cirque des Rêves to be like. The story surrounding the circus, however, comes from somewhere else.
The circus was essentially created as a venue for a competition played out over decades between two people who are the subjects of a bet made by two other people. The bettors, Hector and Alexander, have had a long-standing rivalry based on their different approaches to practicing magic, and have engaged in several challenges by proxy over their long acquaintance, pitting their students against one another. This time, the players are Hector's own daughter, Celia, and Alexander's orphaned ward, Marco. What their teachers don't anticipate is that their subjects will be drawn more toward collaboration than competition, and that will change the game completely.
The Night Circus' plot is intriguing but not groundbreaking, and the character development isn't particularly deep. The novel's strengths are in its structure--a non-linear narrative moving back and forward in time until it eventually converges, shifting perspectives among several of the characters--and its sense of atmosphere. There's an acceptance of the unexplained that seems to arise both from the magical elements and the greater personal reserve of the novel's Victorian-era setting. I don't think what Morgenstern does here is properly "magical realism," but magic is employed matter-of-factly and is integral to the story, although she's not explicitly dealing with a "magical" world in the Harry Potter sense.
But the Potter connection is implied, intentionally or not, by the choice of narrator for the audiobook. Based on his reading of The Night Circus, all of those Audie Awards Jim Dale has won are thoroughly deserved, and I think my next reading of the Harry Potter books will be his audio versions.