I had a tricky time finding a book to recommend this week. The first one I picked up was so pretentious I threw it across the room after 80 pages. The next had no commas in it whatsoever and gave me punctuation rage. Another I had to abandon after "time danced lightly" over a character's face. So what a relief to escape into The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker, $37.99), wonderfully inventive and one of the most enjoyable books I've read in ages.
Set in the late 1800s, it's about a mysterious travelling circus, Le Cirque Des Reves, which appears in towns without warning and opens only after dark. Unlike any other circus, it's shaded entirely in black and white and, rather than a single Big Top, contains clusters of tents set within circular paths and filled with wonders. There's an illusionist, a fortune-teller, a contortionist, jugglers, a fire with flames as white as snow. There are labyrinths, a hall of mirrors, tents full of clouds and ice, performing kittens. It's the most extraordinary circus ever and soon has legions of devoted fans.
What the audiences don't realise is that some of what they see and experience within Le Cirque Des Reves is not trickery at all - it's real magic. The circus itself has been created as a duelling ground for a challenge between two powerful sorcerers, Hector Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter) and a sinister man in a grey suit known as Mr A.H. Each of them has an apprentice they've been training for years to pit their magical abilities against one another. But this contest to the death veers off course when the apprentices - Hector's daughter Celia and an orphan called Marco - find themselves attracted to one another.
Morgenstern's debut novel reminded me very much of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I loved and clearly so did she) with a little bit of Audrey Niffenegger sprinkled in. It's dark in places and has a dreamy fairy-tale quality throughout. I stayed up late to finish it then felt bereft to leave its world when I'd turned the last page.
I'm not a fan of all things magical realism, by any means. In fact, some of it leaves me cold. Perhaps the reason I have a huge crush on The Night Circus is that Morgenstern paints such a vivid and memorable picture of the world she has dreamed up. The circus is the star of this book, often overshadowing its cast of eccentric characters. At times it felt as if I was really there moving through the crowds and losing myself on its winding pathways, and I was left wishing something like it existed in real life.
If your fictional preference is for gritty realism then you're unlikely to share my enthusiasm for this book. Indeed, you may find yourself impatient with all its whimsy and intrigue. But, if you're open to a magical experience, then roll up, roll up and prepare to be enchanted by The Night Circus.