By Ekta R. Garg, D.reamer
February 27, 2020
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Release date: November 5, 2019
Despite all the issues with The Starless Sea—its weak characterization and its lack of a coherent plot, among other things—most readers, I think, would agree that Erin Morgenstern’s imagination is unparalleled. After all, who else would come up with a honey-filled sea beneath the surface of the earth and tie that place to books and stories?
That’s also where the contradiction lies, of course. Morgenstern gives us hints and peeks at the world she created but doesn’t fully explain it. She gives us just enough of a taste to make us wonder what the whole meal would have been like. Then she announces the restaurant is closed and throws a deadbolt across the door.
Still, for those of us who dream in words, some of the individual passages in The Starless Sea are incredible. It’s easy to appreciate the book in pieces. Maybe it’s even easy to understand some of those pieces.
Just as with most other readers, it mystified me as to why Morgenstern interspersed Zachary’s journey with the short stories in the book. Within the story world she presented, it’s unclear whether these stories were a part of the secret library close to the Starless Sea or whether they were meant to serve a larger purpose. Were they bits of history of others who had once traveled to the sea? Not all of the characters in those short stories do, but Morgenstern must have had some reason for including them.
The stories themselves, though…wow. In the one titled “The Inn at the Edge of the World”, the story opens with this paragraph:
An innkeeper kept an inn at a particularly inhospitable crossroads. There was a village up the mountain some ways away, and cities in other directions, most of which had better routes for traveling toward or away from them, particularly in the winter, but the innkeeper kept his lanterns lit for travelers throughout the year. In summers the inn would be close to bustling and covered in flowering vines but in this part of the land the winters were long.
The editor in me wants to take the first sentence apart, but let’s ignore the grammar for now and just imagine this inn. Imagine the bravery of the innkeeper in continuing year after year with this place of refuge. What made him decide to keep going with the inn year after year? What made him choose this location in the first place? Did he build the inn or inherit it? The answer says a lot about him as a person.
And just like that, we’re in the middle of Morgenstern’s tiny story world—for this short story, at least—and dreaming about the possibilities. It amazes me that she has this capacity. With less than 80 words, she’s caught the reader’s attention and held it fast.
There bits of this same brilliance in the larger story arc in the book, places where Morgenstern allowed us to immerse ourselves in the dream she had for this novel. Late in the story, almost at the end, a chapter opens with the following:
The son of the fortune-teller is dead.
His world is an impossibly quiet darkness, empty and formless.
Somewhere in the formless darkness there is a voice.
Hello, Mister Rawlins.
The voice sounds very, very far away.
Hello hello hello.
Again, with just a handful of words—less than 40 this time—Morgenstern transports us to that lonely, cold place most people imagine death to be. She doesn’t say much, even as this passage continues, about what this place is like. She just uses a few choice words to build it and then let the reader’s imagination do the rest.
Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing that this is essentially what the most talented, mature writers do. They offer a few select details and let readers fill in the rest of the scene with their imaginations. In fits and starts, The Starless Sea does this with a startling clarity.
It gives us the freedom to dream our own lives melding with the lives of the characters.
The key there is that it does it, as I said, in fits and starts. The Night Circus did it with its totality, which is why The Starless Sea is such a disappointment. How was it possible that someone who could keep track of several different plots in the first book could completely do away with any plot in the second?
We’ll never know, I suppose. I wish there was some interview outlet that would go back to authors after their books came out and discuss with them what readers thought, particularly when a book fails to this degree. It would be illuminating to get the author’s insight as to what they intended versus what readers inferred.
Does that make the readers right or the author? It’s a hard balance to strike. Clearly Morgenstern had certain ambitions and dreams for this book, maybe even about the book. She placed those dreams on the page and presented them to the world. Now it’s the world’s job to decide whether those dreams aligned with their expectations.
On her social media posts, Morgenstern has talked about the fact that she’s writing again. I wonder what she’ll dream up next and whether she’ll take any of the constructive criticism of her thousands of fans to heart. I wonder if that next novel will meet her readers’ expectations.
More than anything, though, I hope she doesn’t lose her unique ability to dream in words like no one else does.