Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Reading, as a habit, is a profoundly moving action. An act of pleasure that submerges you so deep, your life begins to get demarcated by chapter numbers and page flips. With time, though, these numbers and flips blur into an indistinguishable ocean of stories, some profound, others lame, a few catastrophic, and a couple moving.

And then, from within this ocean of imagination you’ve been surfing for life, comes a tale unparalleled in originality. A myth so blissful, it beacons like a lighthouse and harbors your soul within the mesmerizing cocoon of its dark, thundering gravity.

Once there, you suddenly realize this. This is what you’d been missing, waiting for. What all other stories desired to be.

“Once, very long ago, Time fell in love with Fate.”

I had this feeling after reading The Night Circus, and The Starless Sea is no different. For a book this ethereal, perhaps then the best way to describe it is with the words of the author herself: The Starless Sea is “a cool conversation about overlapping narratives… and how no single story is ever the whole story.”

Personally, I do not believe it is possible to spoil this book but I will discuss a bit of the plot because I really want you to read it.

Imagine: An unseen world of bees and keys that preserves stories and storytellers. A subterranean network of suspended reality and drunken time. Myths that wander off the page, people both missing and immortal. A mysterious cult and dual-eyed woman working to undo it all, one door at a time.

These multiple stratagems are connected like raindrops on a spider web and at the centre of this maze stands the son of a fortune-teller, Zachary Ezra Rawlins. 

Grad student Zachary comes across a mysterious book in the library and finds an incomplete chapter of his life narrated inside. A day when his eleven-year-old self found a painted door in an alley and decided not to open it. Later, when conviction and desire reared its curious head, he tried to find it again but found the door and all its magical possibilities had been painted over.

If this book was to be believed, then that door had been real and led to a place known as the Starless Sea. And this, Zachary believes, is a new chance, his second chance to finding it. The youthful hope beckons again, magic and its everlasting existence misting the air with the oxygen of possibilities so that words and world are one and the same.

But something dark and hazy lurks on the horizon, a shadow of the past, a warning from the future.

“…and the wind howled around the inn, crying for love found and mourning for love lost.”

Though filled with elements of magic and mystery, The Starless Sea is essentially a romance written in honey. Dorian and Zacahry’s surprise at seeing and then the quest to find and know each other is a sensation you will feel like a hand on your skin, the breath in your lungs.

“This person is a place Zachary could lose himself in, and never wish to be found.”

Having said that, this book is also a lot more than the journey of these two characters. It’s also a gift to for the readers of the world, a homage to all literary beings whose souls are quilted in stories and whose solitude naps between the pages of books. It is a love letter to all those haunted by regret for turning away from thresholds simply because they believed the door would not open and thus, never tried to see if it did. It is a retelling, reaffirmation of faith, trust and pixie dust.

I cannot possible end this review without acknowledging the magician who wrote the book. It’s rare when you desperately want to love a book and the writer still manages to exceed your expectations.

Morgenstern’s imagination is the lilt of a flute which she then wields with a prose so persisting, the genius of her voice twirls in your brain, blood and heart like music and wine long after the sentences have run their course.

“How are you feeling?” Zachary asks.

“Like I am losing my mind, but in a slow, achingly beautiful sort of way.” 

But it’d be a mistake to discard this book as pretty words without depth or story because the plot is just as tight. The author strings the mystery like an expert knitter or perhaps a chef, looping the events in a series of seemingly unconnected chapters, myths layered upon myths like cake. The multiple narratives are stitched together by characters that grow as they move in and out of the page at leisure and a dizzying mystery that never once stumbles.

When you reach the end, you understand why I took eight years to make this book and you leave this world with a strange sense of peace. A deep unrelenting assurance that the characters and their journies continue off the page. You’re just not meant to know them. Not yet.

“But the world is strange and endings are not truly endings no matter how the stars might wish it so.”

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