The Morningside by Téa Obreht speculative fiction book reviewsThe Morningside by Téa Obreht speculative fiction book reviewsThe Morningside by Téa Obreht

The Morningside by Téa Obreht is set in a post-climate change near-future in a partial drowned city called Island City (maybe Manhattan?) that is accepting refugees to repopulate the city with promises of newly constructed/renovated homes for those who come to work. The novel is a mostly successful mix of genres, a sort of magical realist/cli-fi Harriet the Spy if Harriet were also a refugee.

Our main character is eleven-year-old Sylvia, who has arrived with her mother in the titular rundown high-rise where Sylvia’s Aunt Ena works as the super (there is a frame and the tale is told as a flashback from adult Sylvia’s perspective, but 90% is from the eleven-year-old POV). Sylvia knows next to nothing about her family’s past — including what happened to her father — thanks to her mother’s closed-mouth, focus-on-the-pragmatic day to day of survival viewpoint, which includes never speaking their home tongue outside their apartment. Aunt Ena though is just the opposite, regaling Sylvia not just with old family stories but also legends from the old country, including ones involving a powerful spirit/near-god knows as a Vila. For reasons, Ena and later Sylvia are convinced the old woman — from the same country as Sylvia — who lives in the Morningside’s penthouse with her “three behemoth hounds” is in fact a Vila, and the dogs are actually men that Bezi Duras has transformed into animals. Sylvia, and eventually another young girl who moves into the building, make it their mission to reveal the truth about Duras to the world (thus the Harriet reference).

The home country clearly suffered some sort of traumatic disaster beyond the global climate change that uprooted tens/hundreds of thousands if not millions, and her mother and aunt point Sylvia toward two differing ways of dealing with that kind of past. For her mother, the answer was to wall off the past and live by a strict set of rules in the present: “Never ask a question in writing … words committed to paper could haunt you forever. Don’t keep pictures or records for more than a year … Don’t reveal where you’re from … Say you don’t remember anything before that.” Ena, though, “kept the past in full abundant view. Pictures, cards, pamphlets.” Most of those pictures were of her recently deceased wife, whose belongings were still so present in the apartment that “you got the sense, looking around, that she had just stepped out and was due back any second.” As Sylvia puts it, “if the past had previously felt like a forbidden room, briefly glimpsed as my mother was shutting its door, here was Ena, holding the door wide. I could see all of it, any part, and linger as long as I liked.” The universal nature of this disruption and longing and trauma is enhanced by how Sylvia’s homeland is just “back home” and her first language is simply “ours.”

For me the refugee element was the most captivating and moving: the longing for an old, passed world at war with the ruthlessly relentless attempt to start afresh in a new one; the split between leaving behind one’s culture of stories, language and customs and the aching desire to retain all that has made you you. The inevitable intergenerational conflicts. The way Sylvia doesn’t speak of the impact of her past directly but how the reader’s heart breaks watching her lay out little home crafted, found-object “protections” around the home to keep her and her mom safe. Every element of that storyline is near-perfect.

I also enjoyed the attempts to suss out Bezi Duras, which was nicely balanced between moments of strong tension and fear and lighter, more humorous ones, and which also added in a nicely depicted classic YA-type of relationship between two girls forming a new friendship and trying to find their way around their stark differences in personality. Less successful for me was another plotline, one that eventually merged with the main one, involving an older man — Lewis May — with a mysterious past.

The prose is sharp throughout, whether Obreht is offering up pinpoint moments of characterization, vividly depicting the post-climate-change world of Island City, waxing lyrical and/or offering up an original metaphor or simile. On a sentence level, the novel was a pleasure to read. I’m also a sucker for stories about stories/storytelling, so there’s that going for it as well. All of which makes The Morningside an easy recommendation.

Published in March 2024. After being expelled from their ancestral home in a not-so-distant future, Silvia and her mother finally settle at the Morningside, a crumbling luxury tower in a place called Island City where Silvia’s aunt Ena serves as the superintendent. Silvia feels unmoored in her new life because her mother has been so diligently secretive about their family’s past, and because the once-vibrant city where she lives is now half-underwater. Silvia knows almost nothing about the place where she was born and spent her early years, nor does she fully understand why she and her mother had to leave. But in Ena there is an opening: a person willing to give the young girl glimpses into the folktales of her demolished homeland, a place of natural beauty and communal spirit that is lacking in Silvia’s lonely and impoverished reality. Enchanted by Ena’s stories, Silvia begins seeing the world with magical possibilities and becomes obsessed with the mysterious older woman who lives in the penthouse of the Morningside. Bezi Duras is an enigma to everyone in the building: She has her own elevator entrance and leaves only to go out at night and walk her three massive hounds, often not returning until the early morning. Silvia’s mission to unravel the truth about this woman’s life, and her own haunted past, may end up costing her everything.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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