Hazel McHaffie

A sensory experience

Have you ever picked up a book and simply held it, savouring its appearance? No hurry to open it. Just enjoying the visual  experience.

Erin Morginstern’s The Night Circus falls into that category for me. And no, this one is pure fantasy; nothing whatever to do with organ transplantation or medical ethics in any disguise! I thought you might welcome a little light relief while Spring struggles to get a firm foothold.

The dust jacket of this tactile book is black and white with occasional touches of bright red.

The actual hard cover is red and silvery grey.

The edges of the pages are black and yes, there’s even an inbuilt silky ribbon bookmark in red.

The inner cover is black with rows of white hats and an occasional red one.

Significant dividing pages are black with a few stars on them.

I can’t possibly do justice to all its specialness with these photos but I hope they give you some sense of the book’s originality.

Why is it produced like this? Well, it all fits with the story. A tale of magical realism. A story of a circus – a black and white circus; a circus like no other. A circus that arrives without warning or announcement. That opens at nightfall, closes at dawn.

I don’t want to say much about the plot – the least important and satisfactory element of the book in my view. But basically it’s about two young and gifted illusionists, Marco and Celia, being pitted against each other in a contest with vague rules and high stakes by ruthless older men with shady pasts and dubious motives.¬† And a cast of weird and wonderful players in various stages of reality who either influence them or are influenced by them.

This is definitely not the kind of story I’d normally choose to read, but my daughter lent me her copy along with a strong recommendation. And I’ve surprised myself by my reaction to it … witness writing about it. But Morgenstern’s boundless imagination and skill as a storyteller converted me from sceptic to admirer. Her mind must be an utterly fantastical place to be. My grandchildren would be entranced by magic of this ilk. Listen to this description of a clock by way of illustration.

At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.

But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.

The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side.

Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.

All of this takes hours.

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and miniscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.

At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler. Dressed in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles silver balls that correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern.

After midnight the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and the clouds return. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself vanishes.

By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.

I could feel and smell and see all those clever transformations, the illusions, the amazing labyrinthine tents. I loved the fabulous gowns, the eye-popping origami creations, the quaintly precise and polite language. I was mesmerised by the human statues and the magic. And I so much wanted things to work out for Marco and Celia. The ending disappointed but the journey there was diverting and fun.

A one-off. And a welcome break for me too from the serious business of medical ethics.

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