Lost in fables, bees and owls

The Starless Sea is Erin Morgenstern‘s second book, her first one – The Night Circus, published in 2011, remains one of our all time favourite books. So we anticipated The Starless Sea would fill us with delight, particularly since the title itself is so beautiful. And so it did. At least initially.


The novel starts off in typical Morgenstern style and has a mystical quality to the storytelling. There are stories within stories and fables within fables. Each individual fable that is recounted is beautiful in itself. There are doors around the world that, if you are lucky enough to come across and adventurous enough to open, lead to vast underground harbours on the shores of the Starless Sea. The harbours are basically libraries full of books, cats, magic and bee motifs. Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across one such door as a school boy but does not open it. He is haunted by his decision until in college he finds a book which leads him to search for answers regarding the door he failed to open. In so doing he meets a whole host of characters and discovers that the doors are being deliberately destroyed and the harbours fading.

The underground world created by Erin Morgenstern is beautiful. Her language is entrancing. But somewhere, at least half way through we wanted it all to start connecting up. The problem with so many fables and metaphors is that the reader starts to look to recognise each and every character in terms of the fables and is let down when that does not happen. With constant reference to owls and the Owl King, we kept expecting him to turn up at some point. Whether he actually did or not escaped us entirely. Beyond the beauty of language, the book is too surrealistic; like a Dali painting where nothing makes sense but you cannot tear your eyes away, desperately trying to make sense of it. Bogged down in the sticky sweetness of the Starless Sea, this is a story we have decided to let go of. We can’t bring ourselves to reread it in order to try and make more sense of it.

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