Friday, 3 January 2020

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

Do you believe in the mystical, the fantastical, the improbable, or the impossible? Do you believe that things others dismiss as dreams and imagination actually exist? Do you believe in fairy tales?

Thus says one character in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, and if you can answer yes to all of those questions then this is the book for you. More magic surrealism than magical realism this book takes you on the most incredible journey. I’ll say though that this is possibly a Marmite book - for those who prefer their fiction to have a foothold in reality and the probable may struggle. However if you exult in a writer who gives free reign to their imagination and allows the improbable to seem not only  probable but likely within the pages of a book then you will delight in this wonderful tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins.

I was flooded with memories and fragments and suggestions. I became more than a reader as I enveloped myself within the pages of this book. Psychedelia was a commonplace term in the sixties and sometimes I thought this book was the result of one hell of an acid trip! I saw colours as I read. And then it seemed like one of those role paying video games from the early days of computer gaming when the text was as dominant as the graphics and there were doors and floors and keys and artefacts to find with obstacles and adversities to overcome. Is it a coincidence, then, that Zachary’s thesis is on video games? I don’t think so.

There is a short story by Franz Kafka called ‘Before the Law’  or sometimes called  ‘The Doorkeeper’ and I was reminded of that with the introduction of the Keeper character and the many, many doors in the story.and the dreamlike nature of the narrative. Many of the sequences have a fable,fairy tale like quality to them.  I was reminded of the rock group The Doors, too, with Jim Morrison The Lizard King but in this story we have the Owl King. I thought of the sixties group Traffic and their song Hole in my Shoe. And of course I thought of Lewis Carroll and Alice In Wonderland of which there are several references some obvious, some more oblique.

Structurally diverse with stories within a story, an effective device that reminded me of Nina Allan’s, recent,  The Dollmaker. Here the stories nestle within each other like the matryoshka dolls that Zachary finds and within the larger story and with Zachary, himself. And Kat’s diary entries towards the conclusion of the story. So much to keep the reader interested. 

Like a piece of visual art where the artist’s intent may be guessed at we can surmise what the writer’s intention is but this book is for us to experience and make of it what we wish, what we will, what we need, for you get the sense that everything is symbolic and metaphoric depending upon the reader’s own experiences and responses. The scope and depth are overwhelming at times and I can only describe as it as a book that filled me up to overflowing. 

This isn’t a story you can effectively summarise or prĂ©cis in my opinion and to do so would be a disservice. Books and libraries are key, as are stories themselves. Let Allegra explain, as she compares  a story with an egg.

A story is like an egg, the universe contained in its chosen medium. The spark of something new and different but fully formed and fragile. In need of protection. You want to protect it, too, but there’s more to it than that. You want to be inside it, I can see it in your eyes. I used to seek out people like you, I’m practised at spotting the desire for it. You want to be in the story, not observing it from the outside.  You want to be under its shell. The only way to do that is to break it. But if it breaks, it is gone.’

And if there’s ever a story you want to be in then this is it! For where else will someone tell you, 

‘I used to be a rabbit. I’m not anymore. I don’t need to be. It’s never too late to change what you are, it took me a long time to figure that out.’ 

And how about, 

Be brave, ….be bold. Be loud. Never change for anyone but yourself. Any soul  worth their star stuff will take the whole package as is and however it grows. Don’t waste your time on anyone who doesn’t believe you when you tell them how you feel.

There are some lovely touches - such as the moment when Zachary is reading an important book and the lightbulb above him shatters offering him a literal lightbulb moment. 

But I guess at the heart of all of this  is love. Love on several levels.
As Dorian, another character in the book, says -

We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own.’ 

and aren’t we always searching for love? 

The book is rich with words and emotions and imagination. It’s an immersion and it requires commitment from the depths of you. But the rewards are indescribable.

I borrowed this book from the library. What a fool! I need to own a copy. I need to have somewhere to disappear into when the real world conspires to annihilate me.  

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