The Night Circus, Doubleday Canada, 2011. 30 million sold in 37 languages.
The Starless Sea, Doubleday Canada, 2019. 500,000 first printing.
Erin Morgenstern is a true fabulist, spinning stories across shifting time and space, creating intricate three dimensional and magical worlds. She plays with dualities, from seeking and finding, through time and space, fate and choice, with eddies and bubbles and loops, and many, many doors, some of which lead to different dimensions.
The Starless Sea follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller, through intricate turns and trials down into a labyrinth underworld of books and stories and harbours in the “starless sea”. As a young boy Ezra comes across a door painted on a wall in the ally near his house, considers trying to open it, but passes on. Later he finds a book describing exactly that scene, and falls into his own story. Owls, cats and bees figure prominently, with keys, swords, crowns and hearts, paintings and sculpture all playing important roles.
The rhythm and resonance of the writing often calls to be read aloud, while many images and metaphors seem to leap off the page. Yet within this magical and colourful flow there are occasional gruesome details, such as a severed hand or a tongue cut out, which bring a raw seriousness to the fantastic tales. Stories within stories, back eddies in the river of time and voids in the texture of space build an extraordinary three dimensional world.
Strings of stories entangle within each other, like the threads each character brings into a crowded ballroom and carries on after. Stories that search for endings and wait for keys to unlock an outcome after the swirling dance of fate and choice and time.
“He has untangled himself from vines blossoming with story-filled flowers. He has traversed piles of abandoned teacups with text baked into their crackled glaze. He has walked through puddles of ink and left footprints that formed stories in his wake that he did not turn around to read.”
“The weather. It’s like a poem. Where each word is more than one thing at once and everything’s a metaphor. The meaning condensed into rhythm and sound and the spaces between sentences. It’s all intense and sharp, like the cold and the wind.”
(The Keeper says) “It must have been a rift in time that you stumbled upon. Such things are volatile and must be sealed.”
“I was going into the future?” Simon asks, trying to understand. A clandestine underground library is one thing, traveling through time is another.
“Possibly, the Keeper answers. “More likely you were both passing through a space that had loosened itself from the bounds of time. A place where time did not exist.”
“Everything whispers the story here, the sea and the bees whisper and I listen and I try to find the shape of it all. Where it has been and where it is going. New stories wrap themselves around the old ones. The ancient stories that flames whisper to moths. This one wears thin in the places it has been told and retold. There are holes to fall into. I have tried to record it and I have failed.”
“Fate still owes me a dance.”
“And no story truly ends as long as it is being told.”
The Night Circus is also about people caught up in a magical realm, but with real magic: capes that become ravens flying about then recomposing into capes, people transported to different places, ageless people that don’t cast shadows. The night circus just appears unannounced, on the outskirts of a town, only opening at dark. It is the “circus of dreams”, each tent unique with contortionists, aerialists, illusionists. Then after a few nights it disappears.
The two main magicians, Marco and Celia, are engaged in a protracted competition, without knowing that they are adversaries. Their falling in love complicates everything and puts the circus itself and all its members in danger. Again, the occasional slightly gruesome detail provides a reality check, that the stakes are serious and very real. The characters are engaging and plausible and draw you in so that you really care what happens to them, with a surprising and satisfying outcome.
Erin Morgenstern’s two award-winning books are the epitome of escapism in an intelligent and imaginative way. A wonderful and creative writer weaves spells of enchantment and creates unusual worlds. Perfect winter reading.