Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.
Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.
The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.
It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.
In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.