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
Monday 26 September 2011
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.
tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 3 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader