A Starless Sea by Erin Morgernstern Read-Along With Me

(the UK edition printed by Harvill Secker)

I have been awaiting the arrival of Erin Morgenstern’s latest book since I met her several years ago when she signed my copy of The Night Circus. Now, the publication of A Starless Sea is imminent; it will be in our hands on November 5, 2019.

This morning I received an extract of the novel from Penguin UK in my mailbox. You can read it here. Or, the beginning of the excerpt here:

Back in his den with the cocoa he settles into the beanbag chair bequeathed to him by a departing student the year before. It is a garish neon green in its natural state, but Zachary draped it with a tapestry that was too heavy to hang on the wall, camouflaging it in shades of brown and grey and violet. He aims the space heater at his legs and opens Sweet Sorrows back to the page the unreliable library lightbulb had stranded him on and begins to read.

He wonders if it will return and loop back to the previous part. Then it changes again.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s hands begin to shake.

Because while the first part of the book is a somewhat romantic bit about a pirate, and the second involves a ceremony with an acolyte in a strange underground library, the third part is something else entirely.

The third part is about him.

(the US edition published by Penguin Random House)

I wonder if any of you would like to read this book along with me in November. I will start as soon as it arrives in my mailbox. (I have ordered the American version, autographed by Erin, here.)

I won’t have a schedule, per se, as some of us may stay up the whole night reading it one go. But, I will have posts for each week in November about the book, and I will link to any posts on your blog, as well as welcoming your thoughts here as you read.

Shall we embark on The Starless Sea together?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.
The light emanates from a large bonfire in the center of the courtyard.
As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.
The flames are not yellow or orange, but white as snow as they dance.”

Within these pages is a challenge set up for two young illusionists which is a test of endurance, not skill. “The one who survives is the victor…the winner lives, the loser dies. That’s how the game ends.”

Unless the two follow a different path, taking their own desires into consideration.

Hector chooses his daughter, Clara, and Alexander chooses the boy, Marco, and these children are ‘bound’ to each other with rings which melt into their fingers. With these rings, they have become pawns much like chess pieces on a board. They do not know of each other’s existence at first, and when they do meet, they fall deeply and terribly in love.

Is there any other way to fall in love but to sacrifice everything for it? To lose oneself in the possibilities? For life without the one you love would surely be worse than being the loser in such a game. Perhaps in a competition, emerging as victor is not the most important conclusion to a game. Perhaps it is coming away with what you deem most valuable.

The night circus is an illustration of life, I think, told in an incredibly imaginative way. I loved the black and white circus tents which appear only at night, the rêveurs who follow it wearing their scarves of red, the stories of the contortionist, and the illusionists, and the twins named Poppet and Widget. (Because of the former, I had to place my Little Red Poppet in the picture with the book; clearly she could belong to the circus with her red cloak, ruffled collar, and winsome spirit.)

There is a burning cauldron set upon spirals of white and black, an Ice Garden with frosty leaves, caramel described more deliciously than I can record it here, described as if I could taste it on the page.

Yet as wonderful and magical as a circus can be, there is an element of danger under its tents. Nothing is certain, and much of what goes on is an illusion of beauty. Of skill. Of strength. So who controls us? Are we in charge of our own destiny? Is there a “magician” who causes us to do his bidding?  And most importantly, what happens when we are tired of carrying it all on our own shoulders? Perhaps jumping into the burning cauldron, with its purifying flames, is indeed the only choice for those brave enough to choose their own fate.

Passages I loved:

~”People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” (p. 28)

~”The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now. I can…well, read isn’t the right word, but it’s not the right word for what Poppet does with the stars, either.” (p. 198)

~”I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held,” Celia says when he approaches her. “Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” (p. 295)