In April, I began my book review of The Tiger’s Wife with the following: Gather around, my friends, and I will tell you the story of the man who could never die, who, some say, still walks the streets of our village at night, and then—if most of you are still awake—I’ll tell you the story of the tiger Shere Khan whose eyes burn brightly in the night when he prowls near campfires like this looking for his wife.
As a storyteller, I’m drawn to stories that sparkle with probabilities, magic, a sense of mystery, and a raw potential for being real beneath the guise of the novelist’s art. In April, I didn’t think anyone would do better in 2011 than Téa Obreht. Then I started seeing the hype for Erin Morgenstern’s novel of fantasy and magical realism The Night Circus. Hype bothers me because it smacks of money-fed, well-oiled machines churning out literary propaganda for those favored authors who get the rare treatment of a real, book-selling campaign. As a storyteller and author, I am jealous of those authors and that alone kicks in a nasty attitude of bias against whatever it is they are selling.
Yet, when it came to The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus, my intuition told me I was going to like these books in spite of my bias and in spite of the fact that I really wanted my 2011 favorite to come from a small press. Perhaps The Night Circus edged out The Tiger’s Wife because I finished reading it later in the year. Or perhaps it was because the magic of two dueling magicians in the Le Cirque des Rêves in Morgenstern’s novel reminded me of the dueling magicians in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, my favorite novel in 2004.
Both Susanna Clarke and Erin Morgenstern paint rich pictures of complete worlds, worlds where there is room to experience the magic in depth and to believe that it fits there and really did happen or could happen. Booklist saw this complete world in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in its starred review: The brilliance of the novel lies in how Clarke so completely and believably creates a world within a world: the “outside” world being early-nineteenth-century England, as Napoleon the eagle looms over all of Europe; the “inner” world being the community of English magicians.
Likewise, Library Journal saw an equally complete world in Morgenstern’s novel this year: To enter the black-and-white-striped tents of Le Cirque des Rêves is to enter a world where objects really do turn into birds and people really do disappear…Debut novelist Morgenstern has written a 19th-century flight of fancy that is, nevertheless, completely believable. The smells, textures, sounds, and sights are almost palpable. A literary “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” this read is completely magical.
In The Night Circus, two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, are magically bound by their mentors into an endless competition without rules or time limits that is destined to play itself out in a mysterious circus of dreams that arrives in towns with no advance notice and is only open from sunset to dawn. Celia and Marco use real magic, but because the public doesn’t believe in such things, they pretend to be illusionists.
Neither magician knows when or how his or her illusions will be judged or when or how a winner will be declared, but only that they are not allowed to tell the outside world about the competition. In fact, the competition itself influences how the circus is maintained, what the patrons see or think they see, and creates a rather dream-like realm where it’s difficult for readers and circus visitors to know where the fantasy of it all begins and ends.
While most of the reader reviews for The Night Circus are positive (three to five stars), as of today, the novel’s 64 one-and-two-star reviewers saw no plot in the book at all. Generally, they found the book to be boring and pointless. One way or the other, these reviewers’ expectations were not met. I suspect they were looking for an overt storyline more like Harry Potter’s battles with the evil Voldemort throughout J. K. Rowling’s popular series. Rowling has also created a very complete world, yet what happens in it happens faster and with more splash and consequence and that garners more happy readers.
Near the end of The Night Circus, one of the two devious mentors tells a circus performer about the imporance of stories themselves and how they connect writer and reader in intersting ways and spin out consequences outside the control of either of them:
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.
I love blurring reality and fiction together in my writing. My wont to do this, as a trickster and storyteller, led me to enjoy reading both The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus. Both Téa Obreht and Erin Morgenstern have created believable worlds with strong characters that can move and drive readers. Even though I have always loved tigers and have always disliked circuses, Le Cirque des Rêves has manged nonetheless to connect with my blood and self and purpose.
Coming Soon: a review of Mister Blue by Jacques Poulin, to be released later this month by archipelago books. Published in 1989 as Le Vieux Chagrin, the novel first appeared in English in 1993.
You May Also Like: Yesterday, I announced an end-of-the-year book give-away challenge for my contemporary fantasy Sarabande. If you enter, you might just win a free copy.