Trips To The Fair

In our increasingly polarized society I think there’s one thing that I hope we can all agree upon, and that is: Carnies are creepy. And put those carnies in a traveling circus, and guess what? Über-creepy. There’s something about the way that they just appear in town one day and are gone another. They are supposed to dazzle spectators with amazing feats and grotesqueries, which may be real or fake. There is the sense that such carnivals are never completely what they seem to be. That they are never quite to be trusted.

This underlying theme has been at the center of a couple of books that I recently finished: 2011’s The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, which was first published in 1962.

Now, The Night Circus was one of the “it” books last year, which because I am curmudgeonly makes me initially skeptical about how good it might be. The story takes in the decades before and just after the turn of the last century and follows the mysterious Le Cirque des Rêves. A magnificent circus of wonders that appears magically in a place and contains sights that no one has previously seen. The Cirque even has its own groupies – revêurs – that follow it around the globe (think very posh Deadheads). Brought into the orbit of the circus are two young orphans (Potteresque Warning!) – Marco, a lad who falls under the tutelage of a mysterious elderly man, and Celia, who ends up as the ward of her strange and demanding stage magician uncle.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Morgenstern weaves a patient tale (did I say slow? No. I said patient) that follows Celia and Marco (and a number of other characters) from their childhoods into early adulthood, and revolves around their influence on the circus as they learn their own forms of magic (Potteresque Warning!) and, of course, their star-crossed love. The language, I think tries to capture a by-gone time and I will say that Morgenstern certainly broke out the thesaurus for this story — each chapter had amazing, adjective-laden descriptions of the almost unbelievable creations that the Cirque (and Celia and Marco) produce.

In the end, the secret nature of Le Cirque is revealed, and the couple is torn between love and duty, choice and fate. And in the end, I liked The Night Circus. I liked the characters (both main and supporting) and I liked the story arcs, but I never quite felt fully committed to the whole thing. Perhaps because it felt so familiar  — sort of Potter-y, but not quite as captivating, sort of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but not nearly as complex or awesome – it loses a little by comparison.

Three solid stars

Speaking of comparisons, where The Night Circus is gilded with a remarkable adjectival armor, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes seems practically under-written.  This sparse story follows two best teenage friends, Jim and Will, as they discover that a strange circus has come to town. The two boys are yin and yang – Will straight as an arrow, Jim always willing to go off the path for something interesting. Their friendship is tested by the arrival of the circus and its awful proprietor, Mr. Dark.

The boys notice something strange happening to the people of the town – an everywhere small town America that probably never existed except in the nostalgia of peoples’ memories. Providing the adult sounding board is Will’s father, Charles Halloway, who initially comes across as a dissatisfied middle aged man, somewhat distant from his son.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

With his simple and dreamlike prose, Bradbury tells the story of Something Wicked like a parable, which in a way it is. The boys learn the awful secret of the circus and are tempted by its power and promises, even though the husks of people it has used populate it. Mr. Dark seeks to corrupt and consume the boys, and failing that, destroy them. Will’s father is forced to face his own life’s choices and possibly sacrifice everything to save the boys. There are some absolutely horrific scenes as the carnies seek the boys – small, private horrors that resonate more because their world seems so personal.

This is a masterful book examines the two-edged sword of both craving and fearing change in our lives. The boys yearn to be adults, but fear that growing up will change their friendship. Will’s father must reckon his life as he approaches old age and the siren song of getting a “do over”. Because really, how many of us haven’t said: if I knew then what I know now?

The first time I read this book I was probably the boys’ age and it struck me as a creepy, scary story – sort of the predecessor to Stephen King. Re-reading it now, at an age much closer to Mr. Halloway’s, I can look back on my own life’s temptations, choices, and changes and appreciate it even more.

And you can guarantee I won’t be getting on any carousel anytime soon.

Four stars.

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12 thoughts on “Trips To The Fair

  1. I think the only carnival-related novel I’ve read is “Water for Elephants” which I liked quite a bit. However, I do like the dark side of life so consider these books added to my reading list. (This list that you’ve got me listing is getting long.)

    • BD — ahhh, I’ve never read “Water For Elephants”, I came close a couple of times and then they cast Robert Pattinson in the film and now I can’t…. :)

  2. I loved Something Wicked. great review. You used Potteresque twice when describing the night circus, plus it sounds like a very “patient” read. Probably will skip that one.

    Just finished Kracken per your suggestion. I would say there was some patient story telling there as well, or maybe it just took me half the book to get into it. I enjoyed it though. Great sense of world building there.

    • Budd — I don’t think that Morgenstern was *trying* to be Potteresque, but with orphans and magic and an olde-timey feel, it almost couldn’t help itself.

      I thought the world-building in Kraken was great. I also finished Embassytown and thought it also was incredibly imaginative.

  3. Pingback: The Circus Arrives Without Warning… « Just Josh

      • Just finished The Night Circus and loved it! I made myself only read 60-70 pages at a time so I could savor it! Discussing with book club in a week or so.

        Gone Girl….so incredibly creepy! I sat around in a daze thinking about it for awhile after I finished the book. You think you know someone, right? I loved that I didn’t guess or call anything. That alone was enough to impress.
        Definitely not as good but another mystery/thriller type I read recently was Long Gone by Alafair Burke. Definitely worth checking out…

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