I’ve seen many many five-star reviews of Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea float around the bloggosphere. Though I enjoyed the very much, I am less enthusiastic about it. For me, there was a lot to love, but also a lot to be disappointed with. I can see how the weight of each of these aspects can be different for everyone, so I’m not here to tell anyone that they are wrong but only to add my own two cents to the converstation.
Disclaimer: we discussed this book at length at my book club, so I cannot claim full ownership for all of these ideas. At the same time, knowing that I am not the only one who thinks so may also add some validity to my claims ;).
This review may contain minor spoilers.
Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a novel about a young man, Zachary, who finds a secret world of books & stories, hidden deep beneath our feet. The chapters about him are interspersed by stories from the books he finds. Sounds magical, doesn’t it?
One of the best aspects of this book is the way it was written. Morgenstern writes beautiful, atmospheric sentences and the hidden world Zachary finds is described in such detail that you feel that you’re really walking around there.
“Halls fold into rooms or galleries and stairs twist downward or upward to alcoves or arcades. Everywhere there are doors leading to new spaces and new stories and new secrets to be discovered and everywhere there are books.”
The idea of a hidden world with shelves and shelves of books, winding passages, cosy corners to curl up in and cats to cuddle is any booklover’s fantasy. If you’re willing to put some time into this book you will be able to unpack many small references to other books and to stories within this story. It is full of symbolism, mystery, intertextuality and meta-awareness of it being a book itself. No wonder so many readers love this book!
Asking a lot of the reader
But this is also where one of the more sticky elements of the book comes in: “if you’re willing to put some time into this book”. The book starts with a chapter about a pirate, a chapter about an acolyte and a chapter about the past before it gets to what appears to be the ‘main’ narrative. Though these stories are nice, most of them doesn’t make any sense until much later in the book. Here, Morgenstern asks a lot of the reader: we have to invest a lot of reading time into the book that will only pay off when we are 100 to 200 pages in. To be honest, if I hadn’t known that this was a book by the author of The Night Circus and that many of my esteemed fellow bloggers love it; had I instead picked it up by chance at my local bookshop, I might not have had the patience to keep reading it.
The structuring of the narrative
The book continues to intersperse Zachary’s story with other stories. Especially in the first half of the book these are seemingly unrelated short stories. Personally, (and I know others disagree with me here, but hey, it’s my review) I found this very frustrating. They really slow Zachary’s story down and kept pulling me ‘out’ of it. This made me feel reluctant to read the stories, and that is a shame, because the writing is dazzling and they are full of interesting ideas. I found myself wishing that they were published in a companion book while at the same time realising that this was impossible because you need them to be able to understand the rest of the book. Aaarch.
Once you’ve done all of this ‘work’ though, the stories start intertwining beautifully, in motifs, themes and even characters. They really make you feel like you are a part of this secret underground bookworld because you have insider knowledge of all of its stories. ❤
The end of the book left me with a lot of questions: The story ‘cuts away’ just before two important characters reunite, it is very unclear how some of it works and even why the protagonist was needed at all*. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A book that leaves some things open gives you more space to figure some of it out for yourself. However, so much of it was unclear that the story just stopped making sense to me. The way the story was set up even seemed to imply that there is a definitive answer to what it all means, but then never delivered on that.
*In case you have read the book already and fancy getting a bit more concrete, click below.
I was very disappointed that we didn’t get to see the reunion between Simon and Eleanor after their love story had been such an important part of the novel. I was very invested in them getting back together! I have so many questions. Does Simon still remember Eleanor? Is she still interested in him or has she moved on?
Secondly, it was very unclear to me why Zachary is ‘the key’ that is needed to end the story and how he does this exactly. Is it that he dies and therefore the story dies? Why do the bees need him at all? Why does this starless sea have to end? How does Dorian put a new heart in his chest? If you have any insights into this, please leave me a comment because I might be missing something.
My feelings about this book are very double. One the one hand, I am very critical of it, but on the other hand I have enjoyed reading it very much and I would recommend other people to try it too. I mainly want to warn you that it may take a while to get into (I’ve seen comments&tweets from people who are struggling with this; it is not your fault!) and to lower your expectations a little so you’re not too disappointed if it isn’t a five-star read for you.
Happy reading! ❤
The picture at the top of this post comes from a list of beautiful book covers: The 10 Prettiest Books I Own
After my review of The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle several family members asked me whether they could borrow my copy, and I had to disappoint them because it was a library book. Perhaps from now on I should specify which books I own and don’t? I own this one. It comes with pencil scribbles in the margins.