Hazel McHaffie

The Night Circus


If you’re a follower of my blog, you’re almost certainly a lover of good books.

But have you ever held a book in your hands, and felt awed by the design and craftsmanship that went into its creation and physical assembly? I’m thinking of … The Night Circus, maybe – the original hardback version. Every detail exquisitely reflecting the value of the product, the mystery and magic of the story. Red ribbon book marker, pertinent graphics, echoing colours throughout, beautifully co-ordinated. A joy to handle and to savour. Beautifully created with love and sympathy for the written word.


It was my PhD thesis that really made me pay attention to how a hardback book is actually constructed.

One bookbinder turned out a shoddy end product – ragged pages, loose stitching – fit only as a lending-out copy, getting more and more uneven the more it was used. The second bookbinder took time and trouble and created a sleek, even, secure version, worthy of respect.

So I was thrilled to have the opportunity this week to actually create a book myself, thanks to an event arranged by my daughter. It took best part of a day, but renewed my appreciation of the skill involved. Hand sewn pages, hand cut edges, hand glued layered covers, precision measuring, attention to every detail. A book can indeed be a thing of beauty in itself.

Oh, and did you know that books have been bound in a huge number of different kinds of skin – kangaroo, sting ray, shark, ostrich, skunk, boa constrictor, elephant – even human!! How would you like to hold that in your hand?!


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A canter round the journals

Time for another round up of snippets from the journals. All of them taken from the latest two editions of Mslexia.

How about this for a marketing strategy?

Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker ran the publicity campaign for Erin Morgenstein‘s debut novel, The Night Circus (which I blogged about a while ago). She gave herself nine months to promote it (wow! nine months!). Early proofs were sent out packaged in the trademark black and white of the night circus, with nothing but a circus calling card attached. A second copy followed with a bag of themed sweets. Pre-publication events included a circus tent at a Festival, circus acts outside bookshops, an online game created to appeal to young adults. Bethan Jones met with editors of glossy magazines, leading to features in Marie Claire and Vogue. She even stayed up one night sewing 50 red scarves (such as those worn by circus fans in the novel) for staff in Waterstones to wear on publication day. Booksellers elsewhere were encouraged to play on the circus theme and many did.

The Night Circus became the second bestselling fiction debut of 2011. What imagination and flair! Wouldn’t we all like someone like that on our side?

An encouraging word for women writers everywhere

Danuta Keane (Books Editor of Mslexia) writes:

Published or unpublished, every woman writer I know juggles her day-to-day responsibilities of job, house and family with writing. Their commitment to their craft is evidenced by the hours they keep; rising with the summer sun or staying up late to fill in the crack in their schedule with creative writing. Yet, rarely have I found one who would agree that she is a marvel. Instead we berate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ mothers, partners, workers, writers… We seem unable to celebrate what we do. But we should! … So pour yourself a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy a well-earned moment to recharge your batteries ...’

Comforting, huh?

Unreliable narrators – should I? shouldn’t I?

Playwright and novelist Lesley Glaisters recommends considering a protagonist who can’t be relied upon to give a true perspective. She points to three brilliant examples – all taken from books that impressed me greatly when I read them.

Notes on a ScandalBarbara in Notes on a Scandal, presents herself as an unselfish, balanced colleague of schoolteacher Sheba who has had an affair with a male pupil, but is in reality a needy predator herself.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverEva in We Need to Talk about Kevin is writing letters to her husband, Franklin, about their son, Kevin, who has committed acts of great brutality. In fact Franklin in dead.

Jack, in Room, is a five-year-old boy who has been incarcerated in a 11 foot square shed with his mother all his life. She teaches him that this bare and cramped room is the whole world, and Jack’s perspective is distorted by the reality she has created.

Three chillingly complex characters who give the reader pause for thought: all is clearly not as it seems to be, but the truth emerges subtly and cleverly.

I’m much taken with the idea of an unreliable narrator – but could I pull it off?

Get out in the garden to improve your writing

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in soil work in a similar way to antidepressants. Getting your hands dirty can be better than Prozac! So if your enthusiasm for writing has waned, try weeding!

Beat this!

A hotel in Cumbria has swapped Gideon Bibles for copies of EL James Fifty Shades of Grey. Cultural commentators and demographers have predicted a baby boom next spring after a summer of sexual fantasy!

So there we go. A few tasters for you. Something to ponder. But can you feel the pent up ire fizzing through this week’s blog?  At a critical moment the computer decided to throw a teenage tantrum and wiped out every single one of my electronic links and editorial changes. And I hadn’t provoked it in any way, honestly I hadn’t. I’d like to be able to report that I maintained gentle maternal calm, but it wouldn’t be true. I had my own little hissy fit. Then it was back to the drawing board for me.

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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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