The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Copyright 2011. Fiction. ISBN 9780307744432.

The Night Circus UK

Story:

Le Cirque des Rêves is not like other circuses. It opens only when night falls and closes at dawn, disappears without a trace and reappears elsewhere without warning. Its dozens of tents contain mysteries like you’ve never imagined, sights you’ve only seen in your dreams.

Be happily oblivious of its true intent as you traverse its exhibitions: at its heart, the circus is the playing field of a competition designed to test the bounds of reality, bounds of imagination, and bounds of stamina of a pair of reluctant magicians.

Style and Plot:

Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen have been trained in magical arts since they were very young. Their teachers are a pair of sociopathic men who have orchestrated several similar competitions over the centuries, for apparently no other reason except that they disagree on the minor nuances of how magic should be taught. That is the basis for dozens of competitions that inevitably end in the death of one participant. Overkill.

The book does have an interesting twist on what it considers a rivalry, however. Instead of a fierce, combat-based competition, Celia and Marco use the circus as essentially a blank canvas, each creating new tents around new themes that are held together by their respective magics. These include a growing garden made of ice, a vertical maze of clouds, and a tree drooping under the weight of a thousand lit candles that never go out. This evens leads to some collaboration on their part, and the tents they create are fanciful and imaginative, made better by author Erin Morgenstern’s excellent descriptive ability.

Morgenstern makes an interesting stylistic choice by writing The Night Circus in the third person, present tense, which ideally would keep the reader in the present flow of the story as an observer of the action—much like one would observe a circus in real life. However, for the reader to be an observer of the action, there actually has to be action to keep it from feeling like a litany of descriptive mundane events. Morgenstern’s strengths are in description and foreshadowing: she spins details like sugar and creates what would be a vibrant atmosphere if it didn’t take up a good-sized portion of the book and was done better justice through a different choice of tense. Matters aren’t helped any by Morgenstern’s clunky grasp of dialogue, which leads to several stilted conversations and one-liners that fall rather flat. Instead of a wild and breathless story about star-crossed magicians trying to outdo one another, the book takes up what is too often a slow and sometimes plodding pace.

Characterization:

The Night Circus is home to the wide variety of characters one might find at a circus: Contortionists, fortunetellers, acrobats, beast masters, and illusionists, as well as those on the fringes of the circus but still caught up in its mysteries. Most of them have important parts to play, and play them well, especially in the cases of the secondary characters. We have Tsukiko, an enigmatic contortionist; Tante Padva, an ex-ballerina with a detailed eye for fashion; Chandresh Cristophe Lefèvre, the circus’s proprietor and visionary; and the sociopathic Mr. A. H—. and Hector Bowen, among several others. They add color to a circus that’s painted in black, white, and shades of gray.

Our main characters are Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen, the competing magicians who are hopelessly in love with each other. Their romance can be hard to believe on some points, however, because it seems to happen very fast and without much more reasoning behind it except that it’s what the author wants. This is because of two major things: The first is that it’s easy to miss how many years have gone past as the book goes on (usually, the only thing that tells you how much time has gone by is a small date under the chapter names, without any other indication); and the second is that Celia was unaware of who Marco was for the first half of the book, making it a very one-sided relationship for a while. When she finds out who he is, she almost immediately falls right into a romance with him, an odd move for an otherwise careful woman. The romantic plotline becomes more believable when you realize that they’ve been competing for fifteen or twenty years, but may still raise a few eyebrows.

There are a few inconsistencies in the characters. Marco, for example, was taken from an orphanage and taught by a man who kept him alone for most of his young life, his only company being arcane books and a daily hour-long lecture. This doesn’t appear to have any effect on how Marco behaves around other people later in the novel, beyond a slight discomfort in crowds. Marco did seem to pick up a few of his teacher’s psychopathic tendencies, as he commits some terrible actions over the course of the story (these actions are excused, or at least happen without much further acknowledgment, likely because Marco is one half of the main romance and the reader must remain sympathetic to him). On the other hand, Celia acts more as a product of her training: Her father was her brutal and demanding teacher, causing Celia to grow up as a bit of a recluse, but with an immense amount of magical stamina.

One disappointing character choice is apparent in Isobel, the fortuneteller. She meets Marco near the beginning of the book, and they have a very brief and meaningless romantic relationship. There is very little reason for her to be there: one supposedly important action that Isobel takes over the course of the book is only addressed in a few scattered paragraphs, and when it comes to fruition, the impact falls flat and seems of little consequence. In short, her character does and is nothing that another character couldn’t have done or been.

The Night Circus is full of vibrant imagery and a good story, but could have used much more focus on the “why” of several aspects. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

The Time Keeper

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9781401322786

the time keeper

Story:

Thousands of years ago, a man named Dor begins to measure time, beginning what will become an obsessive fixation for the rest of mankind. As punishment for his actions, he is cursed to live alone in a cave, listening to every voice crying out for more or less time, and never aging a day. In the present day, two people must learn how to deal with the time they have left, and Dor must teach them, or remain cursed forever.

Style and Plot:

Before one reads The Time Keeper, one needs to know that Mitch Albom has a specific style that he’s well-known for: As a playwright and a sports writer, he’s developed a writing voice that is sparse and short. Some people may excuse this as a punchy stylistic choice, and some may call it a poor grasp of grammar and punctuation. As it stands, it can be hard to get used to, as Albom is constantly putting periods or starting new paragraphs in the middle of sentences.

The Time Keeper is not a book you read for the story; it’s a book you read for the message. Unfortunately, it’s a message we’ve all heard dozens of times before, and it doesn’t help that Albom hammers it in every other page or so. Albom uses constant repetition and paragraphs headed up by a bolded statements to make his points very, very clear to the reader. There is no subtlety. The book often reads as though it’s trying to play coy, but it’s about as coy as a used-car salesman. The message is glaringly obvious from the first chapter, and doesn’t let up. It’s almost as though Albom is unsure whether or not his audience is quite intelligent enough to grasp the tired ideas he puts forth.

The story follows Dor as he tries to teach a dying businessman and a suicidal teen how they should view the time that’s left to them. It’s delivered without any emotion or engagement. The things that happen just seem to happen, without very much sympathetic reaction from the reader, even though the character may be emoting. Some of the events in the book are objectively quite sad, but subjectively they mean very little to anyone on the outside—and sometimes the characters themselves barely react to it on a human level.

Finally, two of the main conflicts within the story—Victor’s failing relationship with his wife and Sarah’s rocky relationship with her mother—are almost completely ignored in the falling action of the novel. Even though these relationships play key roles in Victor and Sarah’s motivations, they are given barely half a nod in the closing chapters, leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied and wondering why they bothered.

Characterization:

Where The Time Keeper could have been truly great is where it falls the flattest. We have three main characters to pay attention to: Dor, the man who’s lived for 6,000+ years; Victor, a dying business man desperate to prolong his life; and Sarah, a suicidal seventeen-year-old.

Dor is the most interesting of the three, being who he is: The first person to measure time, and therefore the one who started humanity’s obsession with keeping track of it. He caused the Tower of Babel to fall and listened to the cry of every single person trying to measure the time they have left. His character seems to begin and end with this, however. He’s not particularly smart, or funny, or anything, really. He simply serves as the plot needs him to, seasons the pages with a few bits of “sage advice,” and then fades away without having developed any truly defining characteristics. Quite the demeaning fate for Father Time.

Sarah Lemon and Victor Delamonte are both painfully cliché: Sarah is a moody teen, hates her mother (for no real reason that’s ever explained, just because), is estranged from her father, and worried about her weight and the opinion of a boy. Victor is a wealthy and successful businessman unwilling to leave the life he’s set up for himself.

Why should we care about these two characters? What about them engages the reader’s sympathy? Not much. Victor has had a good life, and while his diminishing relationship with his wife is sad and his fear of death is understandable, his problems are not particularly evocative. Sarah is unrelatable, and her character so flat she can come across as quite insulting. She only cares about one thing: impressing Ethan, her uninterested crush.

What would have made the book immeasurably more powerful is if Albom had chosen characters with deeper problems: perhaps someone dealing with a rooted depression instead of a shallow bout of teenage angst, or someone who has built a strong legacy and wants to see it continue? Instead, he’s chosen two mundane characters in mundane circumstances. If Albom had even put just a little more time and effort into depth of character, maybe the reader wouldn’t feel like he had just wasted the time that Albom insists is so precious.

Albom wrote The Time Keeper without wasting any time, and it shows. 2 ½ out of 5 stars.