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The Night Circus



This month I’m recommending a book that was recommended to me by my friend and colleague, Leslie Watts. Leslie is also my editor. (Yes, even editors have editors!)

Like the novel I’m currently writing, The Night Circus is a non-linear narrative that has multiple, interweaving storylines. So, Leslie suggested we study it to see how Erin Morgenstern used the technique.

Leslie Watts and me at a recent Story Grid event in Nashville, TN.

At its core, The Night Circus is a fantasy novel about Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair. As children, they were entered into a magical competition and spent their youth in training. Their stories come together when the circus is formed. To the outside world, she’s the illusionist and he’s the bookkeeper, but in reality, they’re casting spells to see which of them is the greater magician.

Because I was reading this book as a writer, I was paying close attention to the craft. Morgenstern does a couple of things in this novel, that we don’t often see.

First, she’s written the novel in what I’m calling a past present tense. That isn’t actually a verb tense, but I don’t know how else to describe it.

The story takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and jumps around in both time and place (the circus travels the world). So, while the storyteller is clearly telling us something that has happened in the past (his past and ours), he uses the present tense.

Second, the very end of the novel (it’s like an epilogue really) is written in second person. That is, the storyteller is addressing the reader directly.

These are both interesting creative choices, but why would Morgenstern make them? More importantly, do they work?

I can only guess that her choice of point of view and verb tense are to bring a sense of immediacy and urgency to the story.

Does it work? Give it a read and let me know what you think.




Available in print, digital and audio versions. Visit your local library or click here to buy the ebook. If your library doesn’t carry this book, ask them to order it.







Audiobook Review



The Night Circusis narrated by Jim Dale. He’s a hugely popular and much beloved narrator but honestly, I’m not a fan. I find it a bit like listening to an old tree talk for 14 hours. At first it’s kind of amazing, but after a while…

Since I’m definitely in the minority, if you like audiobooks I encourage you to listen to a sample and decide if it’s for you.

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2 Comments on “The Night Circus

Lissa Johnston
March 14, 2020 at 6:13 pm

I read this book several years ago and really enjoyed it. In fact, I just finished her most recent book, The Starless Sea. As for why authors inject unusual techniques into their books from time to time, I think it’s just to take it for a test drive. I think it was Allison McGhee who wrote a prologue in second person in one of her books. That was the first time I had seen anything like that. It blew me away, but I was also glad she didn’t continue it throughout the book. And was it The Nix that had some really wild narrative voice swings in the first few chapters before settling down to something a little less jarring? If you really want to see something experimental, check out Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Valerie Francis
March 24, 2020 at 5:24 pm

Hi Lissa,
Yeah, second person point of view is hard to pull off. I’ve heard good things about The Starless Sea (it’s on my TBR pile) and I’ll add Lincoln in the Bardo to my list of titles to investigate. All the best to you!

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