Jan. 22nd, 2017

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is my tenth fantastic reading experience in a row, so I’m definitely on a roll!

It tells the story of a mysterious magical circus, which serves as the battleground for a years-long competition between two rival magicians. But it’s so much more than that.

I found the book instantly engaging. The narrative is interspersed with passages in the second person, which allow the reader to feel as if they are really inside the circus, and also chart the reader’s progress through the book itself. I also liked the slow build of the main storyline, which initially isn’t connected to the circus at all, and takes a long time to become clear.

The interweaving of the two different timelines is masterfully done, building a real sense of momentum towards the point when they finally converge. In the meantime, the wonderful array of characters, and the complexities of their interactions and significance, provide a rich and fascinating tapestry of experience. I quickly became invested in them all, regardless of their likeability or moral compass. In fact, all the characters are very well rounded and believable, with both good and bad qualities. It’s a long while before a clear antagonist can be identified, and my sympathies and support fell on both sides of the mysterious central conflict for most of the book.

The narrative demonstrates very deliberate and very effective use of the passive voice, which is a tricky thing to get right, and generally frowned upon. However, it’s clear that every instance here is precisely chosen for a particular purpose, which it executes perfectly.

I sometimes get impatient with books that contain a lot of mystery and suspense, wanting to skim just to find out what’s going to happen or what’s actually going on. In this case, whilst I found the mysteries highly engaging, I enjoyed the journey of the story so much that I didn’t want to rush it at all.

My favourite aspect of the book, though, is the presentation and exploration of fandom. The dedicated fans of the circus are described with a great deal of affection, and their attitudes, behaviour and interactions are very accurate in terms of my own experience of such things. One of the characters encounters them towards the end of the novel, and his time with them reminded me incredibly strongly of occasions when I’ve gone alone to fan conventions and been adopted by wonderful people with a sense of instant belonging and community. So, it was refreshing and very enjoyable to find that represented so beautifully in a novel.

I got increasingly concerned about how the story might end, but I was very satisfied with all aspects of its conclusion, and I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy. If anything, it reminded me superficially and tonally of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, though it is also very much its own, very wonderful beast.

Yesterday, I also went to see Jackie, which turned out to be just as good as I had been led to believe. It was smaller in scope than I had expected, dealing with only the week immediately after the Kennedy assassination, but also greater in exploration of theme. It was rather like a pair of mirrors set opposite one another, and creating infinite reflections. On the surface, it was about performance versus reality, and purported to reveal the truth behind how Jackie presented both herself and her husband in the aftermath of his death. But, of course, the presentation of that ‘truth’ was itself a performance within the film, and the film-makers presumably made deliberate decisions about what to include and what to leave out, in order to create the message they were aiming for.

Natalie Portman was amazing, in a film that was largely made up of extreme close-ups, and I can’t now recall if there was actually a scene she wasn’t in - if there was, it wasn’t many. She gave a very complex portrayal of a woman dealing with extreme circumstances while under the microscope of the world’s gaze. And it was an impressive, and multi-layered performance - showing both strength and weakness, hope and despair, determination and collapse.

I also thought the structure was clever and well executed. The narrative was very fractured, jumping about in rapid succession between different time periods. This emphasised the trauma experienced by the protagonist very effectively, as well as reflecting all the various memories and thoughts that were jumbled up in her mind. It was a very intimate film, and not always comfortable viewing, but I'm glad I went.

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