Monday, February 23, 2015

'The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers': The Night Circus and Magical Realism

‘The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now.’ - Widget (250)

It's just exquisite.

Those sentences just epitomise the magical quality of the storytelling that you will find in Erin Morgenstein's The Night Circus. It's tactile, completely sensory; you can taste it, visualise it, touch it with your fingertips. I have never been so uniquely immersed in a story. It is thick with the smell and texture of dark caramel, coffee roast, warm and salted popcorn that melts on your tongue – all of these are repeated sensory motifs. You begin to see in black and white, with flashes of red.

There are a few reviews that have complained about the lack of depth to the characters and to the love story. I would challenge them to approach it differently - as a work of Magical Realism. This is not the story of Celia or of Marco, or even of Celia and Marco. This is the story of the circus, as a living breathing entity. The circus is the central character and it develops beautifully, those around it flick in and out over generations. For many narratives, I would be the first to jump on any weaknesses in character development or relatability - but this is an entirely different experience. As a reader, you live and breathe it all as you spend your own time at the circus - an experience enhanced by the intermittent sections of second person narrative (the rest is told in third person omniscient, and reads almost like a fable or fairytale).

Celia and Marco are the victims of a game, of which the circus is the stage and tool, which they were bound into by their respective mentors – two egotistical magicians who disagree on teaching methods. Celia’s life is bound to this game by her own father – who essentially bets her life for his own pride. But as the game progresses, Celia and Marco come to realise it is not only their fates that are tied to the circus and things begin to get messy. The question is: can they break the chains of this fate set out for them without destroying each other and those around them?
The red-haired twins, Poppet and Widget, who are born on the opening night of the circus remind me of another work of Magical Realism – Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (where the protagonist, Saleem Sinai is born at the exact moment of Indian independence and possesses mysterious powers). I’m not sure if this was a deliberate tribute or reference but it’s a lovely parallel in the genre. Poppet can see flickers of the future, while Widget can read the past on people. Other intriguing characters are the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen and young Bailey – the boy who longs to escape from his home and becomes enchanted by the circus.

Celia and Marco’s story is used to further illuminate the circus – they imbue it with magic and fantasy and unrelenting beauty – creating new tents and worlds for each other. It is a place where actual magic is made to seem like an illusion – rather than the reverse. It is a romance played out through art and creativity and it is lovely to watch it unfold, dancing before your eyes.

They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence…’ – the Man in the Grey Suit (482)

There’s a particularly memorable conversation between Widget and the Man in the Grey Suit late in the book when Widget begins to doubt if his story-telling is important:

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang Souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all’ - the Man in the Grey Suit (482)

It’s a brilliant, almost self-conscious, commentary on the act of writing and could be about the book itself. Morgenstein understands that not everyone will comprehend the Circus or what she is doing in this semi-experimental narrative, but that does not stop it being important or reaching others.
I was sad when this book ended, the ending resists high drama, or the tragic explosive climax I was expecting, instead it slips away but maintains a quiet power.
I would definitely read this book again, and again. It's a wonderful escape - a relief from every day life. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but there are many kinds of magic, and not all of them suit every reader.

Our revels are now ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-clapp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep
- Prospero, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1 
(Quoted in The Night Circus)

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