This is my review of this book at Goodreads
This book was described to me by one friend as ‘Harry Potter for literati’, and that didn’t encourage me to read it. Another friend told me it was a story of magical realism, which was a bit more encouraging, but she’s an adherent of some sort of belief system that you have to immerse yourself in the Cosmos, a sort of Quaker on hallucinatory drugs, so I doubted if I would read this book. She also doesn’t return the books I lend her.
But then I was persuaded us to read The Night Circus, and I’m so glad I did. It’s beautifully written, it keeps your attention, you want to know what is happening, and you want to understand what the characters are doing, and why. Morgenstern keeps things back, she doesn’t reveal all. You’re uncertain whether Marco is a good man, if he is a reliable witness. Does Celia tell the truth? There seem to be two Celias: Celia and Miss Bowen. You discover who Isobel and Tsukiko are. Your first understanding, you gradually learn, is incorrect, and you revise. All of the characters change, and keep changing. The description of the rooms in the circus is fascinating, and you learn what the rooms are telling you about the characters. And the rooms keep changing. I certainly wanted to keep reading this book, and I enjoyed it.
It’s a fairy story, or a myth, and like many fairy stories the characters are not well developed, they’re almost cardboard cutouts. For the most part, they don’t even stand for something: good or evil, for example. But you are interested in them, wanting to know what will happen to them. It’s very odd.
But in the end, what was the book about? It was a story about magic. And a story about a competition, a game. But not a game that enlightens one’s understanding. There is magic in the world, but not magic like this. Or perhaps what I should say is that there is magic for me. Magic such as two people being able to understand each other, learn what ‘the other’ wants, and what you can give the other. But although this story is beautifully written, and I was very happy to be reading it, it didn’t increase my understanding of myself and the people I know. How could it? Magic like this does not exist. It’s a funny thing that fairy stories can tell you about yourself and the world, remind you of the dark places, but the magic that’s in this book didn’t tell me anything. It’s full of metaphors, of course, Prospero losing his reality, the destructive love of Marco and Celia, but it’s all rather superficial, never enlightening.
I always think you should judge a book by how well it achieves what it set out to do. Morgenstern set out to enchant, and she did, so, in my view it deserves a very high mark. I don’t think you should judge a book by the ‘did I like it?’ criterion. If I did, it would get a very low mark. I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but there are people who will love it.