Let me start by saying that I loved this book. Not only was the writing great, but the story was engrossing and worked for me on many levels. Basically, it’s the story of two magicians, male and female, who are pitted against each other by their teachers. Their competition is staged within an unusual circus setting. The two eventually fall in love, and I won’t give away the ending.
While on the surface, the story probably seems similar to a hundred stories you’ve read in the past, but that’s the beauty of this book. It is really a book about the cycles of stories and how they are passed down and retold. It is the telling and retelling of stories that is important, keeping timeless tales alive by narrating them in a new way that speaks to a contemporary audience. So it’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Tempest,” and a dozen other stories woven together in the black and white fabric of the circus, like black ink on a white page. As one of the characters in the book states: “Old stories have a habit of being told and retold and changed. Each subsequent storyteller puts his or her mark upon it. Whatever truth the story once had is buried in the bias and embellishment. The reasons do not matter as much as the story itself.” (p. 345)
The image of the circle is a prominent motif in the book. Structurally, the story itself is circular. Rings are used to bind the two young magicians to the challenge, and ultimately to each other. The circus itself is comprised of rings. All these images tie together to reinforce the importance of the cycles of storytelling.
Another aspect of the book that I found very interesting was the dynamic between the two teachers, Hector and Alexander. They each represent a particular school of thought, Hector being the embodiment of experiential learning, while Alexander represents the classical textbook method of education. The struggle, played out by their respective students, symbolizes the conflict between the two predominant educational styles. I also noticed a similarity between the two teachers and Plato and Aristotle. Hector is more like Aristotle, appreciating the importance of the stage as a means to communicate, while Alexander is more like Plato, staying with the more private, traditional forms of learning.
On a personal level, I connected with the reveurs in the book. These are people who follow the circus from town to town, attending as many performances as possible. They reminded me of my younger days following the Grateful Dead from city to city. The reveurs are the equivalent of the deadheads, seeking to escape the ordinary by indulging themselves in a counter-culture, sharing rides and accommodations with other fans, identifying themselves by their splash of color (a touch of red for the reveurs and a tie-dye for the deadheads). I suppose there is no coincidence that taking off to follow the Grateful Dead was often referred to as the modern-day equivalent of running off to join a circus.
I could certainly write more about this book, since there are many levels to explore, but I will let you wander the tents yourself. As with any great book, the life experiences that you bring with you when you open the cover will add to the story. To quote the book: “We add our own stories, each visitor, each visit, each night spent at the circus.” (p. 223)