Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea is the long-awaited and much-anticipated second novel by Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.
I wasn’t sure if it was a fantasy adventure, a love story, a series of myths or – more likely – all of the above mixed together, but I loved it.
It begins with a brief chapter about an imprisoned pirate and a woman who creeps to his cell to hear his stories. Their romantic liaison seems unconnected to the following chapter which is an extract from a book called Sweet Sorrows, describing a huge underground world with complex rituals and codes of behaviour. The next chapter is an episode in a young man’s life where he encounters a mysterious painted door on a wall (a theme I have liked since reading HG Wells’ The Door in the Wall) and decides not to try and open it.
Later we meet the same young man, now a post-graduate student at University, studying game design, solitary, shy, not entirely happy with his lot. He finds the book Sweet Sorrows in the University library, reads it, discovers his own story within its pages, thus beginning his search for the truth behind that missed opportunity when he was a child.
The interlinking stories gradually build and connect, allowing the reader to learn more as the characters do. The pacing is measured and restrained, teasing the reader with hints and foreshadowing.
It felt like a huge computer programming exercise in some ways– a kernel, a heart, within multiple shells, or outer skins of stories. Each enfolding story is resolved, or expanded on throughout the book, creating a web of intertwining characters, histories and locations.
The gaming references were enjoyable, with side quests and unlocked levels – sometimes literally.
The Starless Sea is crammed with a rich mix of characters, locations, timeframes and fragmented stories, all linked together, looping back and forth between one another to create a memorable, dreamy experience.
The book has a muted colour palette – white (snow), black (ink & soot), grey (ash and gloom) and gold (honey and firelight/candlelight. Things are broken, fragmented, shattered and burned; the characters pick their way through drifts of battered relics and ashes. As a result, the combinations of textures – honey’s slow viscosity, ash and feathers, lightness and fragility, dust and soot, bones, snow and beeswax make the book feel slippery and shifting, unstable.
I found something nostalgic and Edwardian (shades of E Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett) in the multiple references to velvet, firelight, candles and glamour. There are enough switches between storylines and timelines to accentuate this. Only paper can be trusted – the latter chapters make it clear that modern electronic media are unsafe and open to compromise, but even so, paper is fragile and easily damaged. Nothing is utterly destroyed except by fire.
Food and comfort are found in unexpected places. Warmth, softness, layers of insulating fabrics and warmth make for a coexistence of cosiness along with the bleaker, empty bone-filled ruins which are encountered throughout the story. The scattered joyous details - Zach’s love of cocktails, the innkeeper’s soup, careful provision of sustenance to travellers - were enjoyable interludes.
Parts of the book reminded me of Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) and the Gormenghast trilogy (Mervyn Peake) with deathless overseers, a magical world underground, an enclosed and contained society within its own complex set of rules and regulations. I also felt that there were a few Rivers of London echoes with underworld people walking the streets and seemingly seeing people as little more than NPCs.
Some come down to the Harbour and never return – details of the harrowing sacrifices made by previous residents are related.
I would have liked some more of Dorian’s back story. Who is he? Where did he come from? In fact, all of the Harbour residents feel worthy of more stories about their pasts and missions. I hope there might be more stories in the future involving them.
The Upper world seemed more baroque and gothic than the Harbour below. NYC and the University felt underpopulated and gloomy, almost always dark like the underworld. The overgrown wildness encountered in the upper world – ruins, gardens, abandoned places – mirrored the abandoned and empty places in the Harbour below.
Each chapter of The Starless Sea feels like a short story in itself, clearly referencing the various books contained within the main narrative (Sweet Sorrows, The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor, the Secret Diary and various smaller interludes.) The narration reveals sections and segments of the plot in the same way that the hidden Harbour gradually reveals itself to the characters.
The book did feel slightly unbalanced to me; front-heavy, if that’s the correct term. There is so much build-up and unwrapping of complex interlayered stories, and to have them all tied together at the end was very sudden and final. It feels as though there is space for a continuation, but maybe that’s the nature of powerful stories.
My takeaways from this glorious mixture of fable, myth, romance, adventure and puzzle?
The end is not always final.
Love travels across vast distances – space, time, societal expectations – to find itself.
Love stories are not always what you want them to be.