Imagine a place hidden from the world, filled with books in every nook and corner, adorned with torn pages from storybooks and gilded with secrets and symbols as old as time. Imagine a place where all tales, adventures, fables, fairylands and dream-worlds are amalgamated into one single story. Such is the Starless Sea, the pivotal setting of Erin Morgenstern’s new novel of the same name.

The Starless Sea is a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories hidden far beneath the surface of the earth. It is a place “for those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to. Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is that they are seeking.” The mere idea of this place touches the heart of every reader and lover of books. With its intricately beautiful imagery, melodious poetic prose and a heart-warming storytelling style, The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s ode to bibliophiles. For anyone who has read (and liked) Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, this new novel may have probably been their most-awaited book of the year. If there were one thing I expected from The Starless Sea, it was magic. And magical it was. But that’s probably one of the few expectations it meets.

The story begins with a promising start as we are introduced to the protagonist, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a 25-year-old introverted millennial. He is the son of a professional fortune-teller, studies Emerging Media at what seems to be a fictional Ivy League university and loves playing video games and reading books. Zachary finds a book called ‘Sweet Sorrows’ in his university’s library which intrigues him very much because it does not have anything mentioned on it, not even the name of the author, the publisher or the year it was published. It turns out to be one of several books donated by the mysterious Keating Foundation decades ago, according to the library’s records. Upon reading, Zachary finds it to be a collection of different short stories which seem both metaphorical and literal at once. The book also describes the Starless Sea in all its magnificent glory, protected as it is by acolytes, guardians and keepers. The twist comes when one of the stories in ‘Sweet Sorrows’ describes a past event from Zachary’s life which no one, except he himself, knows about. Shocked and intrigued, he tries to get to know more about the book and the Keating Foundation.

Zachary’s only clues are symbols — of a bee, a key and a sword — carved on the book. These lead him to a literary masquerade party at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. Here, he meets a woman dressed up as the character Max from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and a storyteller called Dorian who enchants him with a tale about time and fate. Dorian — who seems to know every detail about Zachary’s life — later meets him outside the New York Library and tells him how there are certain people who want to take Zachary’s book away from him.

Dorian and Zachary head over to the collector’s club, which is “their” headquarters, to hand over to “them” a book disguised as ‘Sweet Sorrows’. After the occurrence of several other events, Zachary opens a door painted by the mysterious Mirabel — who turns out to be the woman dressed as Max — and finds himself in a harbour of the Starless Sea. The harbour looks exactly how it is described in ‘Sweet Sorrows’, but is entirely devoid of any people except the keeper, Rhyme the acolyte, and lots and lots of cats. Dorian is wounded by Allegra, the apparent leader of the collector’s club, and is left behind. However, he is soon saved by Zachary and Mirabel as they go back for him.

Symbols, metaphors, intricate imagery and poetic prose come together in this labyrinthine novel that is an ode to bibliophiles everywhere

From here, the story proceeds extremely abstrusely, as readers struggle to decipher symbols, understand metaphors and keep track of the story itself which is divided into six ‘books’: ‘Sweet Sorrows’, ‘Fortunes and Fables’, ‘The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor’, ‘Written in the Stars’, ‘The Owl King’ and ‘The Diary of Katrina Hawkins’. The main story runs parallel to these books in alternating chapters. The first five books are a collection of short stories and initially, none of them truly makes sense, but they are told with such poetic exquisiteness and aesthetic imagination that each is a standalone piece of art. Slowly and gradually, however, the stories interlace, enabling the reader to at least deduce the characters that are being talked about, and learn about them.

Nevertheless, there is much that remains unanswered in the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins. Initially, Zachary pretty much behaves like any normal person would. Overwhelmed by reality, he constantly questions all other characters about everything that is happening. Yet, the keeper says nothing, Dorian is almost as clueless as he is, and Mirabel maintains her fierce and mysterious demeanour by choosing not only to keep Zachary clueless, but also complicating things for him (and the readers) with her incomprehensible words. The words ‘sword’, ‘key’ and ‘bees’ are used repeatedly, but an explanation as to what they allude to is never offered — Zachary isn’t alone when he says, “I’m not sure I’m following the metaphors anymore.” People are lost in time, time is a person, and so is fate. The Starless Sea is filled with honey and is on the verge of its end. In a rather unanticipated, rushed stroke of character development, Zachary suddenly wants to protect the Starless Sea from whatever threats it has and finish his story, but we never know why this place meets the fate it does or what has led to its decline.

All characters seem to have an ultimate, but unknown purpose to fulfil except Eleanor, who just wants to explore. Eleanor’s character comes across as the most likeable because of her high-spiritedness, clear understanding of what she wants to do, and the ability to do it all in a swarm of characters helplessly following their fate and story. Katrina Hawkins — Zachary’s friend from university — is the realest character; her reaction to Zachary’s disappearance and the consequences of her investigation are very believable as they provide a contrast to the acutely imaginative events taking place below the surface of the earth.

Mirabel’s explanation of a simile she uses is the perfect description of what Morgenstern’s book seems like while one is in its first half: “Sorry it’s so poetry today. It’s like a poem where each word is more than one thing and everything’s a metaphor. The meaning condensed into rhythm and sound and the spaces between sentences. It’s all intense and sharp, like the cold and the wind.” While this might be the only explanation of anything ever offered in the book, it could be said that through this story, Morgenstern actually attempts to evoke the readers’ imagination. When you read and recount the story for too long, you realise that it is probably meant to be a Gordian knot. The story requires its readers to complete it themselves. Morgenstern realises how labyrinthine the novel is, hence, she asserts, “This is the story. If you remain down here long enough you will hear it buzzing.”

The reviewer is a student and freelance writer

The Starless Sea
By Erin Morgenstern
Harvill Secker, UK
ISBN: 978-1910701461

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 26th, 2020