All aboard for a magical ride

Because I listen to audio books when I drive, I’ve developed a rating system that involves how far extra I’ll drive to keep listening to a book if I reach my destination in mid-chapter – or even mid-book.  This one cost me a lot of extra miles and gas. But that investment paid off handsomely in terms of entertainment.

By Linda Brinson

THE NIGHT CIRCUS. By Erin Morgenstern. Read by Jim Dale. Random House Audio. 11 compact discs. 13 ½ hours. Also available in print from Doubleday.

Trying to describe this delightful book to students in a college class I teach, I said that it was sort of like Harry Potter for grownups. The students’ response was that Harry Potter is for grownups. Having read and enjoyed all the Harry Potter books, I had to agree with them, so then I struggled to explain what I meant. It’s not that The Night Circus is an  “adult” book in any of the ways that would earn a movie an “R” or “X” rating. And the Harry Potter books, especially the later ones, do deal with some pretty dark themes. I finally gave up and said The Night Circus, although it’s about a magical circus, does not make any pretense of being a book for children. It’s not written on that dual level that makes a book fun for a kid even while adults discern the heavier underlying themes.

I’m not one for forcing books into “genres” or other literary slots, either. But thinking about “magical realism,” in which otherwise realistic stories are punctuated with wonderful instances of magic, I’ve decided that The Night Circus could be described as “realistic magic.” The story is about a magical circus, and magic permeates everything. But that fantastic world is in the midst of, and often intersects with, what we consider to be reality. And the author convinces us that the magic is real, not some sleight-of-hand.

As the narrator tells us, the circus “arrives without warning,” simply materializing on a site where there was nothing remarkable the day before. It is Le Cirque des Reves, an amazing conglomeration of black-and-white tents housing performances like no one has seen before. The circus does not open until nightfall. Patrons wander through the maze of tents, marveling at all they see. Then, after a few days, the circus will be gone again, leaving no trace. It will appear in some other town, maybe some other country. It travels by train, but somehow manages to cross oceans and reach fields far from railroad tracks.

This circus is not just for entertainment. In fact, the circus is a means to an end, the venue for a years-long “game,” a competition between two magicians, or “illusionists,” the protégés of two older illusionists with differing views of magic and how best to teach it.

The competitors, Celia and Marco, are prepared from childhood for their roles in the game. For a long time, Celia does not even know who her opponent is. Neither of them knows the rules of the game, nor how a victor will be determined. As they innocently move forward with their lives and their game, kept largely ignorant by their respective masters, Celia and Marco meet and fall in love.

As the “game” rushes toward its conclusion, the young competitors realize more and more the appalling truth about their competition and what really is at stake – a truth that readers have suspected for some time. And because the circus has taken on a life of its own, a life that winds in and out of the “real” world, Celia and Marco are not the only ones at risk. Even though the masters have carefully constructed the circus all in black and white, they have not been able to suppress the shades of gray that permeate “reality.”

This enchanting book raises all sorts of question: What is real? What is magic? What really matters?  What happens when people or forces interfere in the lives of others? Who really pulls the strings in our lives, and how much free will do we have? What is the essence of love?

Jim Dale’s excellent reading has an other-worldly tone that makes the reader suspend any disbelief. We are drawn completely into the book’s magical world. And we are saddened when the curtain comes down and it is time to leave.

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