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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Hector Bowen - most famous for his stage name, Prospero the Enchanter - receives an unexpected surprise in the form of his young daughter, Celia. Her mother has committed suicide, so Celia is now solely in her father's charge. Upon finding out about his daughter's powers, however, the prospect does not seem so bleak to Hector, and he instead looks to see how he can use her. He calls his old friend, Mr A-H-- and proposes a contest between his daughter and someone of Mr A-H-'s choosing. The rules of the contest are unspecified to the reader, but known completely to the two competitors.

About a decade later, a man called Chandresh Christopher Lefevre, at one of his famously mysterious midnight dinners, brings together an illustrious group of artists, renowned in their respective fields. He proposes a new form of circus but unlike any other the world has seen. It was be solely at night; it will arrive in its locations without warning; it will be an ever-growing circus of many tents; and only the best and most magical performers will be on show.

Marco - Chandresh's assistant and Mr A-H-'s chosen competitor - and Celia Bowen meet as Celia auditions for the circus. Marco soon realises that Celia is to be his opponent, whereas Celia does not realise this for some years.

The story is told in a series of episodes, flitting back and forth between years, sometimes the previous century, which can get confusing but also could be representative of the unpredictable nature of the circus itself. The episodes are either from a specific character's viewpoint, or written in second person as the reader is guided through the circus itself. The characterisation is deep and complex - a great feat considering the size of cast - and the circus itself is rich and magical. You can find yourself envious of the reveurs, (dreamers) - the biggest fans of the circus who make it their life's mission to follow the circus as much as they can.

You could stay absorbed in the world of the circus forever, but as time goes on, the cracks begin to show. Celia is holding the circus together. Several features of the circus itself, like the ever-burning bonfire, are key elements without which the circus would break down but themselves getting harder to hold. Celia and Marco, after discovering their unintentional rivalry, find themselves slowly falling in love, and weary of this contest between them. All of this points to the finale ending in tragedy - but I won't spoil it. Suffice to say, it's a suitably enigmatic and satisfying ending for a story that contains as many moving and surreal parts as it does.

It's really a triumph of imagery and atmosphere, with many endearing and sympathetic characters that you hold in admiration and wonder. Pity is there as well, knowing their lives are not completely their own because of the ego and ambition of Hector and Mr A-H. It's an incredible feat of writing.

Review: Thin Air, Michelle Paver

Five Englishmen set out on a quest to conquer the third highest peak in the world - Kanchenjunga. The night before they set off on their journey,  Stephen - our narrator - stumbles into the presence of Charles Tennant, a mountaineer who joined the team of Edmund Lyell in 1907.  Charles Lyell, however, warns him not to go ahead with the expedition, but will not explain why. All Stephen knows is that, for some reason, Charles is still terrified by what happened.

The closer the team get to the mountain, the more Stephen feels a malevolent presence around them. The higher they get, the more they have to contend with - not just mentally, but physically. Mountain sickness, freezing temperatures, frostbite... and, in Stephen's case, the presence of what he is sure is a ghost.

He finds this to be the case - Arthur Ward, one of the members of the Lyell expedition, was reported dead but his body never found. As Stephen finds out the shocking truth, the closer he is to tragedy.

The plot itself is fairly simplistic but it's the slow-build suspense of it that makes it a really enjoyable read. There is gorgeous and atmospheric description of the journey towards the mountain itself, and a frank representation of British imperialistic attitudes and treatment of the "coolies" and sherpas that makes post-colonial Brits feel embarrassed. Without them, after all, not a single Westerner would have ever climbed up to the summits of the highest peaks in the world.

I found this more of a suspenseful thriller rather than a ghost story. It was a very absorbing read, with complex relationships between the mountaineers adding depth to the big picture of the expedition that is the main plot. I would definitely recommend it.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Review: The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell

Two very different worlds and the lives of two different women are explored in this rich and deep novel by Maggie O'Farrell.

Lexie Sinclair, a woman who knows her own mind and isn't afraid to show it - even during a time when that was a particularly undesirable trait in a woman - catches what seems the luckiest of breaks, even though she doesn't want to acknowledge it at first. A man and a broken down car is all it needs for Lexie to seize an opportunity to up sticks from her stifling home in Devon and carve out a life for herself in London. She falls in fiery, passionate love, suffers a tragedy and yet carries on, and works hard to give herself the kind of life she wants and deserves. I loved her tenacity, her determination, her resolve to do what she wants and be beholden to no man, whatever their relationship.

Elina, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Unrecognisable from the woman she was before she went through a horribly traumatic birth that she doesn't even remember, her days are spent with her newborn living through moments that feel like eternities, wondering if this is all her life will be. I found O'Farrell's narration of Elina's life painfully recognisable - but even if you don't, you can't help but feel a gutting sympathy for her. Not only is there the baby, though, but her husband, who seems to be going through strange lapses relating - he thinks - to his loss of memories of his childhood.

It takes a while before you see how the stories are connected, but when you do it's with a gasp of, 'oh no'.

The writing is heartrending, painfully authentic, and beautiful. And the ending hits you like a smack in the face. Don't finish it at night. Personally, I had to wake my husband up so I could sob all over him. Luckily for me, he took it with good grace.

If you enjoy writing that is elegant yet sucker-punching, a story with romance but without the cheese, and are not averse to a bit of story induced sobbing, then this book is for you.