Having just reread “The Night Circus” in preparation to reading this I was immediately excited that it contains that same sense of fantastical, magic narrative that is shrouded in mystery.
When Zachary Ezra Rawlins was eleven, he found a painting of a door on a brick wall. The door is in an alley that he uses as a shortcut to school. Most times the walls are covered with graffiti, but today there is this door. On the door there are three symbols. At head height in the centre, a bee, underneath this a key, and lastly underneath the key, a sword. The doorknob glows and seems almost real. The keyhole looks so real it looks as if it could receive a key. Being an eleven-year old he still believes in magic and in his gut, he knows that this door is real, and leads somewhere magical. And yet something stops him as he reaches to turn the knob returning his hands to his pockets. The next day, again using the shortcut of the alley on his way to school he is disappointed to find that the door has been painted over. He feels like he has missed a chance, but a chance at what?
Nine years later and Zachary is at University visiting the library, working his way through books to bring some relief from his master’s degree in media. He is looking in the W section as he has recently discovered Sarah Waters. As there is only one book available by her at this moment, The Little Stranger (if you haven’t read it, you should it’s excellent), he starts looking around for some other books to take instead. Something almost calls him to reach up to the top shelf where he finds a book covered in deep burgundy cloth. It has no author. Upon opening the book, he finds that it is titled Sweet Sorrows.
When he gets home and starts to read it, it seems like it is a collection of short stories. When he gets to the third story he is transported back to that day when he was eleven and using the ally to get to school. The third story of the book is a chronicle of the day he found the painted door in the alley. It’s completely accurate and there is no doubt that it is his story. How can this be? He reads feverishly hoping to find what happens? What is behind the door? But regrettably the story ends as it did that day with him refusing to open the door. Again, he feels that he has missed some magical opportunity.
He reads the book three times. Most of the book tells of a fantastical underground library. He knows, although if asked he would not be able to explain why, that the door he failed to open a decade ago led to this library. Did this book come from that Library?
The narrative structure will use alternating chapters. One chapter devoted to Zachary and his quest to find the Starless Sea, the next, will be a chapter from the mysterious novel. The book will be used as a narrative device to fulfil multiple tasks. Firstly, it is full of fantastical stories of every type of genre, and some of these stories are worthy of novellas or short stories themselves. Most of them are exquisitely written. As the reader you will probably find yourself looking forward to the next story while fully immersed in the primary narrative of Zachary. It also works to explain what the Starless sea is, and the significance of the three symbols, representing the three classes of the Starless sea. The bee for the acolytes, the sword for the guardians, and the key for the keepers. All roles are different but equally vital for the sustaining of the underground library.
The Starless sea used to be teeming with people, dancing in the surf having parties. But then it receded, it has changed, the doors crumbled away, a vacant library devoid of readers. Nobody stays here anymore.
This book is full to the brim with magic and fantasy. It almost feels like the covers are struggling to keep this magic within the book and unlike “The Night Circus” I think that there is so much magic in this book that it may indeed alienate readers whose taste is a little averse to a large degree of magic in their story. However, if you love magic and books, then the world that Erin Morgenstern has created here is almost a reader’s utopia.
A reader’s utopia, and a book for lovers of books,
“It takes Simon a moment to realise the keeper refers to the gold-edged book in his hand. “I wanted to read it,” Simon explains, though it seems obvious. What else would he want to do with a book? Though it is not quite true. He wants to do more than read it. He wants to study it. He wants to savour it. He wants to use it as a window to see inside another person. He wants to take the book into his home, into his life, into his bed because he cannot do the same with the girl who gave it to him.”
The list of characters is short, but this is beneficial to the novel, enabling Morgenstern to devote time and chapters on bringing these magical characters to life and show the reader their history and place in the narrative. You could use the same adjectives to describe all of them. Dorian, Mirabel, Allegra, Simon, all equally enigmatic and mysterious in their own ways and all integral to the plot.
At times you may find yourself confused and lost in a magical miasma. Is Dorian working with Allegra, or are they enemies? Why is Allegra closing all the doors denying access to the Starless Sea from everybody? Why is the Starless Sea now empty?
However, stick with it. I found myself baffled at times, going back and rereading chapters to make connections as if I was lost in the underground library myself. But Morgenstern has you right where she wants you and as you get deeper into the narrative, she will connect timelines, narratives, stories, and it all comes together magnificently. You cannot help but admire the effort that Morgenstern has put into the narrative. Upon finishing, I almost forgave her for taking so long to publish this wonderful second novel.
Although I loved this book it didn’t quite reach the heights that “The Night Circus” did for me, but that is more of a compliment to “The Night Circus” than a criticism of “The Starless Sea”
I love the fact that “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke, one of my favourite books, makes a little cameo appearance.
A wonderful magical read for lovers of stories and books. 4.5 Stars.
Erin Morgenstern is the author of The Night Circus, a number-one national best seller that has been sold around the world and translated into thirty-seven languages. She has a degree in theater from Smith College and lives in Massachusetts.
There is a great 30 minute video of Erin Morgenstern talking about The Starless Sea and writing in general here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCDfnoyFWHk