My first comment about the novel is that everyone should ignore the cover text. That description fails to present what The Night Circus is about. Yes, there is a magic duel and yes, there is love but the book is so much more than plot points. Nothing about this book is flashy, action-oriented magic and the duel is a slow dance of beauty and subtlety.
The star of the novel is the Night Circus itself, the enchanting world that was the dream of a few, the work of art of two, and the intense experience of thousands. Morgenstern has written a novel that is true omniscient narration, and the narrator, beyond knowing each of the characters better than they know themselves, is in love with the world these characters inhabit. The style keeps a certain narrative distance rarely broken – we get the characters thoughts, but they are filtered through the narrator’s voice. Many of the negative reviews feel that the characters were flat – and I strongly disagree; we may not get their voice, but they are full, complex characters. The advantage of this narration style is that the brilliant description, the nuances of what can only be seen from the outside, takes the center stage.
This is a story to which one gives oneself over. It is a slow, meandering tale, with a large cast of unique individuals whom the narrator follows for a time, then as if wandering through the crowd of circus-goers, turns and follows another then another. Like a Seurat painting, the narrated minutiae of details blend to create a filled canvas, where the variety of life is on display, eyes drawn from the contortionist to the antithetical twins training acrobatic kittens, to those who follow the circus, dressed in the black and white of the circus with a splash of red, to the competing lovers, to the nefarious man in grey.
There is a plot and moments of tension, but there is no rush to the denouement, no quick unfolding of secrets and mysteries. The world of The Night Circus is illusion and story doled out by a narrator who values esthetic over action. The magic is subtle, the competition more background than foreground. There are genuine moments of shock and surprise, of awe and wonder, and like a child being told a tale at the knees of a master-storyteller, I found myself lost in the telling, exclaiming oohs and ahhhh aloud.
Morgenstern’s novel takes patience and a willing suspension of expectations to be deep in a character and see the world from their POV. This is not a typical narrative technique of today’s novels. There is no race down the superhighway, but rather, a wander towards a remote destination where one stops to smell the roses of beautiful language, to lie on the grass and point out cloud shapes of the detailed descriptions, and to walk a twisted turning path until the destination is reached as all the while everything is slowly, lovingly revealed.