Review Content Warnings: N/A
Book Content Warnings: Death, mentions of suicide, brief mention of mutilation
If there was ever a book that was able to successfully fuse the arts of long fiction and short fiction together, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea is it. Morgenstern’s sophomore novel is a collection of short stories interspersed within a larger narrative plot line. Each short story adds to the lore of the world and each subsequent chapter gives context to these short stories. The reader, in effect, is reading multiple stories and one story at the same time.
The main narrative follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student studying Emerging Media, as he both metaphorically and literally attempts to discover himself and his place within the world. Rawlins, after visiting his university’s library, discovers the text Sweet Sorrows by accident. He is initially attracted to its clear age and wear, but while reading the book he discovers that it contains, in writing, a distinct and private memory from his childhood—a memory the reader is already familiar with, previously disguised as a short story. Rawlins, in shock and confusion, decides to find the author of the collection, and it is this search that leads him down a dizzying rabbit hole of magic, danger, and literary intrigue.
Morgenstern’s work is a novel for the book lovers and the story fanatics. It is the reader’s paradise, filled with reading nooks, secret libraries, mysterious books, and attractive storytellers. The novel captures the reader’s plight: the longing for magic, drama, joy, and danger—and it delivers these wants to the reader in the most surprising and unexpected ways possible. It feels, at times, that magic is actually dancing between its pages.
Perhaps Morgenstern’s strongest storytelling device is her attention to detail. The Starless Sea is in every way a sensory novel. Morgenstern’s greatest achievement is her ability to place readers into her world as vividly as possible. One can feel the chill of the ice, taste the pastries, smell the old books, and rub dust on the shelves. Every page and every story is filled with these attentions to realism, an ironic but much appreciated addition to a world orbiting around a fantasy.
Readers will also have no boredom in setting. Each short story takes place in its own world. “Once, very long ago…” for example, takes place primarily in a dungeon. “Invented life.” takes place in a dollhouse. “A knock upon a memory of a door.” begins in a forest. And yet, each of these stories is tied directly to Zachary’s own story. The biggest critique of the novel, since its publication in November 2019, has been on its apparent lack of plot focus. To an extent, this point holds validity. It feels at times as if the reader is following Zachary down passageways of confusion without proper explanation. However, this confusion may be the exact point of the work. The world of The Starless Sea is not a straightforward and explainable world, nor does it ever promise to be. In fact, the world intentionally coats itself in a mystery, so it is understandable why the plot may also refuse to make sense of itself. The self is not something to be fully discovered, magic is not always meant to be understood, and a world does not need all its secrets exposed to be an effective world. Mystery will rule the day once again.
Erin Morgenstern is the author of The Night Circus, a number-one national bestseller 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.
The Starless Sea can be purchased here