It has been an age since I read The Night Circus – so long ago that this blog did not exist – but I remember it as ephemeral, atmospheric, beautiful and moving. So the news this year that Morgenstern was bringing out another novel was huge – huge! So it was downloaded on the day of release and devoured… but alas it has taken me a while to find the time to review it.
And – oh my god! – the book is beautiful! It is every bit as evocative and atmospheric and unsettling as I remember The Night Circus as being, and crafted as intricately as a piece of lace. Each and every episode is interconnected in ways which I feel but don’t quite grasp. The urge to re-read it now is very strong! And that is an unusual thing for me!
The novel centres on Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune-teller, who is preparing for a thesis on gender and narrative in gaming in the Emerging Media Studies department of the University of Vermont. And Zachary has a knack of finding things – or perhaps more accurately of being found by things. As a child, he found a painted doorway in an alley way, a hyper-realistic trompe-l’œil doorway
The door is carved—no, painted—with sharp-cut geometric patterns that wind around its edges creating depth where there is only flatness. In the center, at the level where a peephole might be and stylized with lines that match the rest of the painted carving, is a bee. Beneath the bee is a key. Beneath the key is a sword.
A golden, seemingly three-dimensional doorknob shimmers despite the lack of light. A keyhole is painted beneath, so dark it looks to be a void awaiting a key rather than a few strokes of black paint.
And as a university student, he found a book entitled Sweet Sorrows which introduces him to a metaphorical (but also real) pirate and a girl, an arcane initiation ceremony and the tale of a boy who found a doorway painted onto a wall.
Are not all books really doorways in any event?
The novel then continues to alternate between passages from Sweet Sorrows – and other similar books, Fortunes and Fables and The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor and fragments folded into stars and secret diaries- and passages from Zachary’s quest to uncover the truth about the book and its origins and how he could have been narrated within it. A quest which takes him to New York following the symbols of the bee, sword and key; a quest which brings him to Dorian and to pink-haired Mirabel – whom we first meet in a gorgeous fancy dress costume as Max from Where The Wild Things Are – and to the impossible and infinite and labyrinthine library beneath (or between or beside?) the world in which all the stories of the world, written and unwritten, reside and are born and rest and are to be read, a harbour on the starless sea of honey. The Library which contains the eponymous starless sea and is presided over by the Keeper but seems otherwise to be empty save for the supposedly voiceless acolyte Rhyme, a plethora of cats and a very courteous and obliging kitchen.
At one level, what occurs is a fairly familiar fantasy trope: there is a hidden secret mystical institution; a sinister counter-institution is seeking to destroy it – in this case the Collector’s Club presided over by a Allegra, a one-eyed “white-haired woman in an equally white fur coat”. Zachary is the outsider recruited into this conflict. There was a mildly entertaining series called The Librarians with Noah Wyle and Rebecca Romjin that played with the same basic concept in a sort of Doctor Who lite way.
But this goes far beyond that basic premise. In fact, the plot feels secondary to the gorgeous writing and the paean to story and narrative and book which the novel surely is. Just take the choice to dress Mirabel up as Max in her first appearance to Zachary. Max who invents or discovers or is transported to the land of the Wild Things, which may take place outside time (after all, his dinner is still hot when he returns after two journeys of “nearly over a year”) or inside his own imagination. The library, the harbour on the starless sea, is the land of the Wild Things reimagined.
And her descriptions are so sensual, abounding in taste and scent as much as vision: Mirabel’s perfume as Max
is even perfectly suited to the costume, an earthy blend that somehow smells like dirt and sugar at the same time.
Dorian is destined to be Zachary’s love interest from the first moment they meet when Zachary notices that
Someone else is in the darkness with him, the hand that pulled him in has released him but someone is standing close by. Taller, maybe. Breathing softly. Smelling of lemon and leather and something that Zachary can’t identify but finds extremely appealing.
Then a voice whispers in his ear.
“Once, very long ago, Time fell in love with Fate.”
A male voice. The tone deep but the cadence light, a storyteller voice. Zachary freezes, waiting. Listening.
And when he wakes in the library, Zachary
…closes his eyes but reality seeps in through his other senses. The room smells of a formerly crackling fire and sandalwood and something dark and deep and unidentifiable. There is a far-off chiming noise that must have woken him. The bed and the pillows are marshmallow soft. His curiosity wages a silent war with his anxiety making it more difficult to breathe, but as he forces his lungs into taking slow, steady breaths, curiosity wins and he opens his eyes.
It’s all so gorgeous and sensory and sensual…
But through it all, the love for and awe of books and narrative in all its forms – gaming, prosaic, fairy tale, lyrical, mythological – lie at the heart of this novel like a throbbing beating heart. Contemporary and classic narratives creep into the pages of The Starless Sea: Where The Wild Things Are and novels like The Little Stranger and Donna Tartt are explicitly cited; echoes of The Faery Queen and Alice in Wonderland and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Neil Gaiman abound – not so much in explicit allusion but in whispers and echoes and shared sensibilities. Stories talking to us, rather than being talked about. Characters hint at but never quite feel fully grafted onto older characters: Allegra, who sacrificed her eye in order to see, reminds us of Odin; The Owl King bears echoes of The Raven King, John Uskglass, but also of countless ancient green men. As Zachary himself wonders at one point when
Zachary remembers the man lost in time wandering cities of honey and bone in Sweet Sorrows and the mention of the Starless Sea in Fortunes and Fables and wonders if all of these stories are somehow the same story.
Are not all stories the same story – the same ur-story – retold and reimagined and reinterpreted? Do I feel confident in being able to identify the core story at the heart of these myriad narratives, these mythic tableaux? I’m not sure I am. I’m not sure I want to be.
In hindsight, in attempting to review the novel it feels ephemeral, liquid, and trying to take hold of it to explain is a little like trying to hold a handful of honey between your fingers. I don’t feel that I have a hold on it at all and I can imagine that many readers will be frustrated by that, but I adore it. Morgenstern seems not to feel the need to concretise and solidify her novel fully; she is content to let it be vague and rich and symbolic – to be and to become it’s own myth.
And I love that.
So, if you love books, if you value books, go and read this beautiful, mythic evocation of all that narrative means.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Date: 5th November 2019