Cities of honey and bone

Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea

In troubled times, absorbing books are a blessing: a gateway to a different world, from which we can return with a subtly altered perspective on the problems of our own.

I remember loving The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a 2011 novel about a richly imagined circus that sets the stage for an age-old struggle between two immensely powerful magicians. The premise (and even the title) recalls Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and Morgenstern’s confident storytelling and overflowing creativity is worthy company for Carter – high praise from me, as Nights at the Circus is one of my favourite books. (Its other reference point is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – I loved that too and really must watch the TV series. Coronavirus might see me finally subscribe to Netflix!)

Morgenstern’s new book, The Starless Sea, displays the same dazzlingly fertile creativity, but this time, her inspiration is the video game. Does that sound less romantic than the circus? Don’t worry: she blends in the eternal tropes of Time and Fate; a love story that endures over centuries and past death; and that slam-dunk for any reader who would ever pick up a 500-page novel: an endless, labyrinthine library that extends through galleries, halls and levels in an underground otherworld where time and stories do not always proceed in as orderly a fashion as in our reality. I could very happily live in Morgenstern’s mysterious library with its numberless rooms, bordering the Starless Sea, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

A fantasy library from Desktop Nexus that reminded me of the one in The Starless Sea

Her protagonist is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a reclusive postgrad student of Emerging Media (i.e. video games) who, as a child, saw a door painted onto an alley wall and didn’t open it. After finding a book in his university library that includes exactly that story – himself, as a child, finding a painted door and not opening it – he gets a second chance to find his way to the world beyond the door, which is… you guessed it, the world of the vast underground library and the Starless Sea. Soon he’s caught up in an epic battle to save that world. This is the main storyline, but there are plenty of inserted fairy stories that form parts of books the characters read. I found all these equally enchanting.

Magic is tricky territory for adult books. It’s so easy to get it wrong. But I recall so vividly that blurry, dreamlike uncertainty about the laws of the universe that is among childhood’s richest gifts. The cat might talk. The wardrobe might open into a mysterious land. I might be the heroine of a quest I know nothing about… yet. The world was sufficiently wondrous and new to me that I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t know how ATMs and washing machines worked – perhaps there was equally incomprehensible, more exciting magic out there? Morgenstern captures this wonder, particularly in her richly layered descriptions (when I said you could live in the library, I meant it – her creations are endlessly imaginative, vivid and precise). However, the story was never ENTIRELY clear to me. Because I read fast and inattentively, I often miss vital plot points, so thought it was my fault, but I see other reviewers agree. I actually think this is a common fault among epic fantasy books – the protagonist is pitched into a world whose rules and history they know nothing of, and so neither do we. This mystery often hinders the plot – see: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. I feel it’s maybe a bit lazy to have dramatic tension hinge on the fact that the protagonist never has a clue what’s going on, and for me, The Starless Sea does fall into that trap. The characters aren’t quite fully fleshed out and, even as an easily scared reader, I never really feared the antagonist.

But honestly, I would love this book if only for its creation of that incredible library – it will live in my imagination for a long time. And that’s far from its only virtue. I cared about the two central love stories; I revelled in the intricate symbolism; I adored the grandiose boldness of incorporating Time and Fate. I didn’t want to leave this book and I’ll reread it to re-enter that world and catch nuances I missed first time round. So… thumbs up for a self-isolation or quarantine read. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t far off.

An art critic’s memoir

This week I read Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands. It has SUCH an amazing premise: it’s a memoir by an art critic whose mother went missing for three days from a Lincolnshire beach. It happened in 1929 when her mum, Betty, was three – Betty has no memories of this event, and wasn’t even told about it until she was in her fifties. What happened?

As she unravels the mystery, Cumming drops jewels of art criticism, like her description of Sussex artist Eric Ravilious’s work, in which she detects “a kind of surprise that the plain, scrubbed world could be quite so beautiful”.

And she creates an entirely new kind of memoir, using her professional skills to interpret family photos – a shot of her grandmother when young is like a Vermeer, light streaming in through the kitchen window onto the serenely beautiful woman peeling apples into an enamel pie dish. She describes the beach of Chapel Sands as like a Seurat in some moods; a Turner in others – “What is the sea”, she asks, “but a perfect abstraction?” Of the print of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus that decorated her childhood home, she writes: “No other painting has ever made me feel so keenly alive to the idea that this high round world, lit by the sun, is the very same place where our ancestors once trudged and ploughed and fished the very same seas, in their queer medieval costumes; that we may change but the scenery does not.”

“Life reproves the imagination: look closer,” Cumming writes. And she does, investing her family history – a picture made up of photos and memories and scanty written documents – with more and more possibility, more and more complexity, each time she reexamines it. And she concludes that sometimes the past can only ever be unknowable.

I was enthralled by the depiction of the village of Chapel St Leonards in the 1920s as beset by a kind of pinched conservatism that is airless and depressing. (Funny to think that at the same time, the Bloomsbury-ites were whooping it up with threesomes and all sorts of high jinks at Charleston.) Betty’s adoptive parents – repressed, silent types – never spoke of her true origins, and nor did the tightlipped villagers.

And though she overflows with empathy for the pain her rigid grandparents caused her much-loved mother (she describes her as being “as celebratory as summer”), Cumming finds it in herself to humanise these people who did little Betty so much damage. “What seemed right at the time now seems cruel and inhuman,” explains one villager of the morals – a profound, pervasive shame about sexuality chief among them – that saw an entire community keep the secret of a child’s identity from her.

And eventually the mystery is solved – surprisingly but inevitably. This is just an extraordinary piece of writing on family and love and art and history. I loved it.

In related news, did I immediately rush to spend 10 of your English pounds on a Hay Festival listening subscription SOLELY to hear Cumming interviewed by the co-host of another fave podcast, John Mitchinson of Backlisted? You bet I did.

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