A Love Letter to Storytelling

In 2011, Erin Morgenstern was catapulted into international fame with the publication of her phantasmagorical novel, The Night Circus. The path to success, however, wasn’t instantaneous. The draft of the novel was rejected by thirty literary agents. When her debut novel was finally published, it was a literary sensation and a critical success that swept many a reader and a literary pundit alike. It won her a couple of literary awards such as the 2012 Alex Awards and the 2012 Locus Award for Best First Novel. It was also the advent of a new and compelling voice in the vast ambit of literature.

Despite the success of her debut novel, it took nearly a decade for Morgenstern to publish her next novel. Eight years after her first, Morgenstern made her long-awaited literary comeback with the publication of The Starless Sea. Morgenstern’s sophomore offering relates the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins. Zachary is the son of a fortune teller. He loves books and reading. He is also a homosexual who enjoys playing video games in his free time. He was also pursuing a postgraduate degree in Emerging Media Studies in a college in Vermont.

His love for books led him to encounter a misclassified book, Sweet Sorrow, in the university library. He was consumed by curiosity. The book contained fairy tales. However, the deeper Zach got into this mysterious book, the more he realized that its plot used elements from Ezra’s younger life. A passage intimately describing his encounter with a magical painted door he left unopened when he was younger made him feel dumbfounded. With his curiosity consuming him, he read the book from cover-to-cover with gusto. He increasingly got interested with the book’s contents, and even its provenance. His growing interest in Sweet Sorrow led him to embark on a quest to find answers.

“I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space. I remember wondering if this story was an analogy about people who stay in places or relationships or whatever situations longer than they should because they’re afraid of letting go or moving on or the unknown, or how people hold on to things because they miss what the thing was even if that isn’t what that same thing is now.”

~ Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

His search for answers led him to New York City where he was asked by his friend to attend a literary masquerade party at the Algonquin Club. This was just the start of his adventure as fated encounters led him to another magical painted door, the door he didn’t open when he was younger. Little did he know that it was actually a portal to the subterranean world of the Starless Sea. Within the walls of the Starless Sea are stories embedded in various media such as paper, funeral shrouds, and candies. Over the horizon, however, an ominous sign is looming. With the clock ticking, Zach finds himself enmeshed in a lethal battle to save the Starless Sea from disappearing into oblivion.

The novel’s premise is simple enough – it is the story of a young man who wants to know his fate. Storytelling, however, was never simple. Zachary’s story intertwines with the backstories of other characters such as Dorian, a beautiful storyteller; Mirabel, an enigmatic character who paints doors; and Allegra, a woman who exchanged her eyes for the power of foresight. Also interspersed throughout the main narrative are snippets of other stories that range from backstories to fairy tales about pirates, owl kings, and dollhouses. It was an eclectic mix that also served to underscore the evolution of storytelling in the contemporary period.

In The Starless Sea, Morgenstern weaves a remarkable and magical subterranean world that is reminiscent of Rushdie’s Sea of Stories and even Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The world Morgenstern painted is visually appealing and feeds the insatiable appetite of the imagination. The Starless Sea is brimming with evocative and fantastic imagery. Morgenstern, with her background in theater, crafted a world with the acuity of a designer’s eye. Each nook and cranny – a hallway propped with a thousand doorless doorknobs, a sunken library inhabited by cats, and entire cities made up of bones and honey – came alive with her vivid descriptions.

Morgenstern fattened her readers with the sweetness of the narrative. Honey literally dripped from every corner of the novel; the Starless Sea is made of honey. Morgenstern’s prose is so evocative she can rouse the reader’s senses with her metaphors. It wasn’t difficult to smell of honey and smoke that seeps through stone corridors or taste potions. But in The Starless sea, things are rarely what they seem to be. A chandelier is no mere chandelier nor a cup just a mundane cup. Nothing is ordinary. With its evocative text, it was no stretch of imagination to conclude that the aesthetics of The Starless Sea is an intricate love song to storytelling.

“Endings are what give stories meaning. I don’t know if I believe that. I think the whole story has meaning but I also think to have a whole story-shaped story it needs some sort of resolution. Not even a resolution, some appropriate place to leave it. A goodbye. I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space.”

~ Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

Whilst the novel riveted with its wonderfully crafted descriptions, it was also this facet that weighed down on the narrative. It belied one seminal element that the novel is bereft of: a solid plot. It was easy to get drowned in the aesthetics of the narrative that one forgets about the main narrative. The readers start to lose the main narrative as the novel weaves in and out of various stories, storylines, and timelines. The stories within the story, whilst interesting at the start, gets overwhelming as the story moved forward. These various strands made for a complex tapestry but it was also one of the facts that makes the story confusing with its warped sense of place and time.

There was just one too many strands that Zachary’s story ends up getting swallowed by the grandeur. The plot was seemingly sacrificed for imagery. One can never tell which facet of the story is seminal and which is not. What propels the reader is the search for the answer to the point the story was trying to make. Clarity, however, was never achieved. Too many questions were left unanswered. The story was convoluted by various elements and Morgenstern wasn’t also keen on laying out the context. As Zachary bumbles along the Starless Sea, he tries to makes sense of the magical place he found himself stuck in. Readers ended up like Zachary – confounded by the magical world but clueless as to what it entails.

The novel also suffered from a lack of distinct character voice. Zachary failed to deliver as a character. He was fated to be the star of The Starless Sea simply because he was made by Morgenstern to be. He was an interesting character – he is queer, shy, and awkward. He was also a feminist. However, he didn’t earn his star because he grew on the readers or he developed as the narrative moved forward. His passivity was baffling. He spent his time gallivanting and getting awed by the new world he discovered. But it wasn’t only Zach that was the issue. All of the characters were underdeveloped and it was difficult caring about any of them. They were all static and didn’t exhibit any growth throughout the story.

There was no eureka moment. The lack of central conflict made the narrative fall flat; it was devoid of tension. There was one antagonist named Allegra but she, like most elements of the story, got swallowed by the novel’s overbearing elements. The romantic elements were rushed and inauthentic, bordering on the whimsical. They did save each other’s lives but their interactions were too contrived it was difficult imagining how they developed any deep connection. Nothing hinted to their growing fondness except for a prophecy. Other romantic couples wandered on and off-pages, but then again, it was difficult caring for any of them.

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.”

~ Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

As an ode to aesthetic, The Starless Sea was stellar. The vaunted Pantheon of literature is brimming with stories that pays homage to the art of storytelling. Literature is inspired by beauty. Conversely, literature invites beauty. Storytelling, in all its forms, endeavors to imbibe beauty. It was what Morgenstern sought to accomplish in her second novel. She did succeed in creating a phantasmagorical world where stories danced with symbols, metaphors, similes, keys, and cups. Her world-building was complimented by her lyrical and dreamlike prose.

The most beautiful cake is not always the most scrumptious. As a novel, The Starless Sea faltered. The novel was devoid of crests and troughs; it was all flat. The premise of the novel was promising but it needed time, a plot, and character development to flourish. It needed tightening to set the tone for the messy narrative structure, and a lot of trimming off. The Starless Sea regaled in its descriptions but once the veneer washes off, what surfaces is a story lacking in purpose. Storytelling is not simply about riveting the readers with metaphors and flowery words. The real purpose of storytelling is to tell a story.

Rating

34%

Characters (30%) – 8%
Plot (30%) – 6%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%

My first Erin Morgenstern novel was The Night Circus. I loved how she started the novel. It hyped me up but I was crushed with how the entire narrative just basically fell apart as it approached its climax. I was, to say the least, disappointed so when the news of Morgenstern publishing a new work in 2019 reached me, I wrote it off as one of the books I won’t be reading. My conviction not to read The Starless Sea changed after encountering several positive feedback on the book. Besides, I was enchanted by the book’s cover. The Starless Sea dazzles. Morgenstern’s worldbuilding was riveting; the subterranean world she painted was magnificent. It was easy getting drowned in the flow of wonderful words but then reality sets in. It was an homage to the aesthetics of literature but it lacked everything essential in a good story: a solid plot, character development and conflict. Morgenstern patched together various elements and tried to weave them into one tapestry but there was neither a story nor a purpose. I nearly gave up on this one.

Book Specs

Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Double Day
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 494
Genre: Fantasy Fiction

Synopsis

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for this place, though he does not know it. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library, he begins to read and is entranced by the tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes.

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for.

Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores, Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place, and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths, searching for answers and one another, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea.

About the Author

Erin Morgenstern was born on July 8, 1978 and was raised in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

She attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She studied theater and studio art, and graduate in 2000. In 2003, she started participating in the National Novel Writing Month and in November 2005, she first wrote what would be the manuscripts for her first novel. After her work was rejected by 30 literary agents, she finally sold it to Doubleday in September 2010. A year later, Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, was published. It was an instant sensation and even won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2012. For her debut novel, she was recipient of the 2012 Alex Awards. In 2019, Morgenstern published her second novel, The Starless Sea.

Morgenstern is currently residing in New York City.