Featured Reviews

Téa Obreht – The Morningside [Feature Review]

The MorningsideA Dreamscape of Reality, Myth & Fantasy

A Feature Review of

The Morningside: A Novel
Téa Obreht

Hardcover: Random House, 2024
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Reviewed by Amy Merrick

The novelist Téa Obreht constructs extended dreamscapes that allow her characters to move in a shimmering borderland that blends reality, myth and fantasy. She sets her books in places that are disrupted by war and disaster, and her characters’ interior worlds are correspondingly fragmented. In The Tiger’s Wife, her 2011 debut, a young doctor attempts to find meaning in her grandfather’s death by recalling the folk stories he shared with her. In Inland, from 2019, Obreht reimagines tales of the American West, placing a female character at the center.

The Morningside, Obreht’s latest novel, also explores how people build stories together—accepting and challenging, questioning and retelling—and, in doing so, build relationships. The book is narrated by Silvia, 11 years old, who moves with her mother to the Morningside, an apartment tower clinging to inhabitability in Island City. It is a drowned world that closely resembles Manhattan, with neighborhoods cut off from one another, the tides constantly reshaping its geography. Sil and her mother are refugees from an unnamed country, though they come most recently from Paraiso, a name that invokes a lost Eden. They are beneficiaries of a Repopulation Program designed to restore Island City to its former bustling grandeur, but the plan seems to be making little progress.

At the Morningside, Sil and her mother join Sil’s aunt, Ena, who recounts to Sil the kind of old-world legends that characterize Obreht’s writing. Ena has very different memories of Back Home than Sil’s anxious, secretive mother, who is reluctant to speak publicly in the language they call, intimately, Ours, and who shares little about life before Island City.

A challenge of writing from the point of view of a young protagonist, even a precocious one, is that one is bound by the realistic limitations placed on the narrator’s awareness. Sil is so tentative and shielded from her past that she, and by extension the novel, feel stuck in place until the arrival at the Morningside of Mila, a bright, wild girl, “hard as a stone,” whose family is also from Back Home.

Mila’s propulsive energy gives the story new urgency. Together, she and Sil set out to investigate the mystery of Bezi Duras, a painter who lives in the penthouse of the Morningside and walks through the city late at night with her three intimidating dogs, “black as the gaps between stars.” Through Ena’s stories, Sil has come to believe that Duras is a Vila, a protective and mischievous mountain spirit.

In perhaps the novel’s most beautiful sequence, Mila convinces Sil to follow Duras and her dogs one evening through the nearly empty city. Obreht, in moody prose, lingers on the ruined landscape:

“Here, in this vacant spread of the upper city, the train left its ivy-laden tunnel and shot northward across the edge of the park and out into the north bay. Junction girders that had once held the old trains aloft had created a kind of aboveground cavern, metal arches spanning away and away. The tide was here, too. It had come up Green Street and settled between the pylons, singing quietly against everything, even the tips of our shoes.”

What the two girls find on their mission is subject to interpretation, but now Sil and Mila are bonded by their own shared story. Sil’s private questions about her hidden past and uncertain future begin to feel more compelling as she grows into her consciousness and starts making decisions on her own, which forces her into direct conflict with her mother. Eventually, Sil exposes what she knows about their history, potentially putting both of them at risk.

The characters from Back Home are the heart of The Morningside, but Obreht also provides glimpses of some of the other residents of Island City. They call into the Drowned City Dispatch, a pirate radio station, where they reminisce about “the city of fanfare and electric autumns, of lamplit streets and music and dazzling marquees, of lovers tangling furtively in windows, of lush parks, of townhomes glowing warmly on a moonless night.” 

Sil befriends a writer, Lewis May, who is haunted by the damage he caused by stealing someone else’s story and presenting it as his own. The lively, intriguing chapter recounting his journey hints at another path the book could have taken, telling readers more about the other people who live in the crumbling buildings and why they stay. Like May, who left “the flat, green brilliance of the wind farm where he’d grown up,” many of them have come from elsewhere. This place was their dream, too.

Occasionally, the novel shows the tension between longtime inhabitants of Island City, who yearn to restore their previous way of life, and recent arrivals who are desperate to build new lives because they can’t return to their old ones. There is denial on both sides. For all of them, there is no going back.

The Morningside began as Obreht’s creative exercise about the effects of climate change; some scientists predict that Lower Manhattan could be underwater in less than 80 years. Many more people, including many children, could be forced to migrate, just as Sil and her mother were. Recounting the shared journey that her daughter does not remember, Sil’s mother tells her: “My heart just broke and broke and broke every time we staked up someplace new and found more of the same. The same confusion and uncertainty. And I realized that I’d brought you into life at a time when everyone else’s debts had come due.”

Sil’s mother becomes, fittingly, a salvage diver, and an enduring image of the novel is that of her small, fragile body bobbing in the water, looking for a secure place to come to rest. What stays with me from The Morningside is how the story reflects what is happening in the world right now, what has been happening for years: people from North Africa struggling to reach the shores of Lampedusa; families leaving Venezuela to walk in flip-flops through the Río Muerto and cross the Darién Gap; Cuban emigrants drifting on their deadly, precarious rafts; the forever haunting image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi from Syria, drowned in the Aegean Sea.

Late in the novel, Sil comes into her own understanding of how she and her mother have been shaped by their experiences and the stories they tell about them. It is satisfying to read Sil’s mature perspective, and the book could have given even more time for this process to unfold. As Sil integrates what she has learned of the world, and her memories of the people who shared her life, her family history is still being written.

Amy Merrick

Amy Merrick is a senior professional lecturer in journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. She is also a freelance writer and editor, and a longtime member of the Religion in Literature book group at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois.

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