Monday, June 23, 2008

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente

A Book of Wonders for Grown-Up Readers

Every once in a great while a book comes along that reminds us of the magic spell that stories can
cast over us–to dazzle, entertain, and enlighten. Welcome to the Arabian Nights for our time–a lush and fantastical epic guaranteed to spirit you away from the very first page….

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….
Ever since I finished reading this book, I have been trying to think how exactly am I going to explain the structure of this book, which I have to say normally isn't my main question on finishing a book. Normally I would be thinking what will I say about the characters, or the plot for example, but this time it is the structure.

The best way I could think of is to try and explain it in terms of an old advert that used to be on TV (at least I think it was an advert). At the beginning of the story, there is a person looking out a window, but when the camera pans back it turns out that the window is painted onto a jug sitting on a table, and when the camera pans back again it turns out that the jug is in a painting, and then the painting is on the cover of a book, and the book is pictured on a TV, and the TV is on a movie screen. I hope as a description this gives you an idea of what I mean when I say that this book has a kind of cascading structure within it.

The story opens with a young prince who goes into the garden and meets a young girl. She is a young urchin who everyone within the palace ostracises, and he knows he isn't meant to talk to her, but when he does, she begins to tell him a fascinated story, and soon he is sneaking away to listen to the girl's stories whenever he can get free of his very strict and domineering sister.

As the initial story is told, we meet a character within that story who then begins to tell another story. Then, one of the characters begins to tell another story and so on. As a structure this does sound confusing, but it is testament to the author's skill that despite the incredibly challenging task she has set herself, the stories do not become jumbled or confused. Valente manages also to not only descend through the different layers of tales, but almost seamlessly ascend back through those same layers until we are back with the boy and the girl at the palace.

And what of the stories themselves? Well, they are a collection of fantastical folk lore type stories. There are princes who go on quests (as all handsome young princes seem to need to do), there are beautiful princesses who are locked in towers, or at least what you can see of them through the window is beautiful. It may well turn out that they are part bird, part horse, part pig in those parts that you can not see. There are stars that have fallen to earth, magical ships, there are people who turn into birds, there are bears who have been sentenced to live as men and skin traders who will take the skin of one creature and give it to another, for a price. And yet despite the different stories that are all jumbled up, and the many different types of characters and events, this is definitely a fun, albeit dark, read. Note that I didn't say easy read, because it is a book that you need to concentrate on, but the effort is certainly rewarded in the end.

It is hard to even choose a single story as a favourite as they are so interconnected, but I did enjoy the story of St Sigrid, and also the connected story Eyvind, the bear who becomes a man for love.

This was the final book I needed to read to complete Quest the Second as part of Carl's Once Upon a Time II challenge. Carl has a reputation of organising really great reading challenges, and it is well deserved! Thanks so much for hosting this one Carl. I really enjoyed the books that I read for it.

It was also one of the books that I nominated for the Heard It Through the Grapevine challenge!

Have you reviewed this book? If yes, leave a link in the comments and I will link to it.

Other Blogger's Thoughts:

Twisted Kingdom

1 comment:

  1. Oooh...I love that kind of story within a story structure. Neil Gaiman also does that very well in World's End. It sounds like I'll really like this book.