HARVILL SECKER, £12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Night Circus, By Erin Morgenstern
A debut that lacks the magic touch
Circus stories have come a long way from Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild, where the only challenge to everyone enjoying a thoroughly good time might come from the odd mean-minded ringmaster.
Now, as in today's real thing, they concentrate more on illusions and the unexpected, with a hint of cruelty never far away.
In this much-hyped first novel, a travelling circus only works at night and always strikes its multitude of tents by daybreak. Its shows are truly amazing because real magic plays a large part. But it is also the arena around which two late 19th-century enchanters pitch their protégées against each other, in a contest that has to end in death for one of them.
Marco and Celia, the pair in question, further complicate matters by falling in love. This is particularly inconvenient because, in ways that are never made entirely clear, Celia's survival is intrinsic to the continuation of the circus itself.
Erin Morgenstern is an American multi-media artist who describes her writing as "fairy tales in one way or another". But, however lavish the exotic icing on this literary cake, nothing can ultimately disguise the underlying doughy reality of a repetitive story, flatly narrated. Characters do as they are told rather than reveal themselves, and magic becomes devalued because it can be performed so easily. Our own greatly-missed Diana Wynne Jones could have achieved so much more with this plot using one tenth of the words.
It may work better as the film it seems bound to become, with the author's painterly eye for detail paying dividends once her fantasies are realised on screen. The romance between the young lovers also calls out for star treatment as it becomes central to the story, with enough declarations of total love towards the end to satisfy romantically minded readers of any age.
There are some touching moments involving minor characters, plus genuine tension as Celia and Marco decide whether they can trust each other. Celia's unpleasant childhood also has chilling moments; when she breaks away from her father, she hurls a copy of As You Like It at him, which then mortifyingly passes through his chest without pause – since he is now a ghost. But despite the fact that his name is Prospero, ploughing through the story of him and his daughter is reminiscent not so much of The Tempest as of a mild but persistent attack of trapped wind.
Arts & Ents blogs
Fancy seeing a play about serial killers? How about inviting a funeral director into your home for a...
There are a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refl...
The opening titles squeal ‘Never Can Say Goodbye…’. Oh Lord how I wish I could heave this series off...
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
The Hangover III star Heather Graham: I'll miss playing a sexy stripper because my real life is pretty boring
Hollywood practices random acts of red-carpet kindness
Archaeologists uncover nearly 5,000 cave paintings in Burgos, Mexico
Cannes Film Festival 2013: And why exactly are vous here?
- 1 Man and woman arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder victim of Woolwich machete attack, named as Drummer Lee Rigby
- 2 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 3 Grace Dent: I’m not sure how these people can avoid being called ‘bigots’. And the more ‘civilised’, the worse they are
- 4 Woolwich murder: They killed, then they performed - these men should be starved of our attention
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL will seek to exploit this evil crime for their own evil ends
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.