In today’s economic climate, running away and joining the circus is starting to sound like a reasonable Plan B. But even if you’re not ready for clown shoes, you’ll enjoy escaping into Erin Morgenstern’s enchanting first novel, “The Night Circus.” Written in the bewitched town of Salem, Mass., this story whisks us back a century, before circuses were dogged by PETA protests and overshadowed by “Disney on Ice,” a time when exotic acrobats and wild animals inspired awe and laughter with a soupcon of menace. But more than merely re-creating the Greatest Show on Earth, Morgenstern has spun an extravaganza that makes P.T. Barnum look smaller than Tom Thumb.
Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” “The Night Circus” presents a sprightly version of 19th-century English magic. Consider the strange proposition between two old conjurers, Hector and Alexander, each of whom claims to be the superior teacher: Hector wagers that his 6-year-old daughter, Celia, can beat any student Alexander might pose against her. We don’t know where the contest will take place, when it will commence or how the winner will be determined — and neither will the two young players enlisted to compete in this deadly game. “Let’s have no clauses at all beyond the basic rules of interference and see what happens,” Hector says. “I want to push boundaries with this one. No time limits, either.”