Saturday, November 20, 2010

Girl on Book Action: In the Night Garden: The Orphan's Tales, Volume I by Catherynne M. Valente

In the Night Garden: The Orphan’s Tales Volume I by Catherynne M. Valente
ISBN: 978-0-553-38403-1


Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice.  Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history.  And what tales she tells!  Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars – each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before.  From ill-tempered “mermaid” to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales – even, and especially, their teller.  Adorned with illustrations by the legendary Michael Kaluta, Valente’s enchanting lyrical fantasy offers a breathtaking reinvention of the untold myths and dark fairy tales that shape our dreams.  And just when you think you’ve come to the end, you realize the adventure has only begun…


My Thoughts:

Ah, my pets, in truth, I very much wanted to read Valente’s new book, but this little Doomwench spent all of her book-buying money for the next little while and thus cannot read The Habitation of the Blessed just yet.  (The sad fact is that it might be for the best considering the onslaught of a research paper not written in English and much needed thesis readings).  Fortunately for me, and you, dear readers, I did still have In the Night Garden waiting patiently on my ever-growing to-be-read shelf, so my Valente craving was sated.  Now, without further blathering from yours truly, let me tell you about this lovely thing.

I loved every moment spent turning the pages of this book, adored letting the story-within-the-story-within-the-story wash over me and pull me into the black depths of the horrible things happening.  I don’t have words to express how I feel about the intricate web Valente weaves; how she pulls the threads of the seemingly disparate narratives together so skillfully that you barely even notice that she’s done it.  Suddenly you go – but I know this character from an earlier story and your memory dredges up a whole new backstory to what you were reading, which adds layers upon layers of meaning and depth.  Sometimes, I wanted to cry, because life is very hard and the people in this book are not spared from gruesome fates like in some other fairy tales.  No, here maidens are turned into monsters by evil wizards and there is no magical fix, only a slow coming to terms with the horror and wonder of new shapes.  Here, grandmothers seek revenge and fail, dying in their grandchildren’s arms amid a wash of blood.  Girls can be foxes and geese can be girls.  The stories are magical and heartbreaking.

Some of the outcomes might be seen as predictable, but I see them more as archetypal myths and Valente shows quite a bit of skill in tapping into them.  A myth is something we recognize in the deep recesses of our minds, so of course we might see the outcome early on, that doesn’t mean the story is any less important, beautiful or worth reading.  Not everything is about a suspenseful, surprise ending – you know, that whole bit about the journey being more important than the destination is often true, especially when it comes to lyrical, meandering fairy tales.

I thought that perhaps for the purpose of this review I would pick my favourite of the stories-within-stories, but I realized that I can’t, because they are all interconnected in a way that doesn’t allow for favoritism of that sort.  I do have to say that I was quite fond of Knife in the first part, “The Book of the Steppe,” and the history of the griffins and Giota in “The Book of the Sea” was so lovely and sad.  Honestly, the whole thing left me with a wistful, melancholy sort of feeling, aching with the beauty of it.  Reading this was like being in a wonderful, terrible dream (and if you’ll allow me a small personal confession, I’d much rather be dreaming these stories than the recent batch of stuff my subconscious has spewed up while I sleep). 

The language, of course, was sublime.  I love the way Valente strings together a sentence.  And I rather wished that I had someone to read these tales to me, because I think they would sound amazing.  And, as we all know by now, I am a sucker for a pretty type-face and layout and In the Night Garden has both.  For a bibliophile like me, the way this book looks is a feast.  More books need to come with gorgeous illustrations and pretty lettering.

Hmm, so I’ve gushed quite a bit and I know Wren is going to read this love-fest and tell me that I need to think of something negative to say, because otherwise how do my dear readers know that I’m thinking critically about the book I’m presenting to them.  Normally, my fallback in these situations is that I mention that there were typos, because most books of any length will have at least a couple, but alas, I can't remember coming across any here.  So, I’ve thought about it and I’m drawing a rather profound blank…I guess, umm, the book was sort of heavy?  You know, to hold up while I was reading.  My arms got tired after a while.  So there’s your critical engagement.

Now, stop reading this review (it’s about to end anyway) and go find a Valente story, maybe buy one of her novels and let her take you away on a sea of language to the realm of myth. 

If you require an instant fix, and I know you might, why not try “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Time/Space” which you can read at Clarkesworld Magazine here or, if you prefer you can listen to it here (also via Clarkesworld - and the narration is really good).  You can also find my review of Valente's also excellent Palimpsest here.

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