Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sweetness and Bite: A Book Review

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Turning to the fist page of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is like stepping into the midnight garden of the initiated--those who tenderly love fairy tales and Know What They're About, all sweetness and bite and none of the Disney sanitation.  The very first line of the novel is fair warning to the casual wader:

Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.

And if there were any hint of doubt left, the sentence immediately following casts it aside:

Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday.

Here, in two sentences, is the bone and sinew of fairy tale: something ordinary expectedly-unexpectedly intercepting the extraordinary.  This knowing tone--the expected unexpectedness--is carried through the story seamlessly and with much obvious enjoyment by Ms. Valente, making it a delight to read and a sort of wink aside to fairy tale enthusiasts.

Ann Lambert, source

The story itself is not complex and takes the form of the hero's journey, but the characters, respectful attention to fairy tale tradition, and exquisitely crafted syntax make for a heady feast.  Ms. Valente chooses to circumvent the cultural-specific folkore and go straight for the idea-of-fairytale-personified: the Strange Country, the universal otherworld.  This mix of folkloric traditions might be jarring if it wasn't done so thoroughly.  There's a pooka, or pwca from the Welsh (love it!!); spriggans from Cornwall; a marid from Indian mythology; glashtyn from the Manx; the tsukumogami of Japanese tradition, and witches.  All tied together into an exotic bouquet with a steel wire of steampunk.  I love that September's mother works at a factory and sports the greasy muscles of Rosy the Riveter.

September's relationship with her parents is an example of how Valente skilfully works the Victorian narration.  A lot of the character development and revelation is secondary--not part of the action but disclosed to us in prose.  It's done extremely well, by the curious technique of witholding knowledge.  We get the impression in early chapters that September is a disloyal child, but we are given a glimpse into her growth as time goes on, only becoming aware of it as September does.  I'm finding it hard to describe, but if anyone who has read the book and has something to add, let's discuss it in the comments!

artist? [not credited in my copy]
September going "native" in the country of Autumn.

Other things I enjoyed about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:

  • the vocabulary.  I learned several new words, no lie.
  • the Victorian chapter introductions--clever, whimsical, and functional!
  • the ridiculously long title
  • the subtle love story.  I don't think Saturday's name would have worked as well without it.  As a pair with September, though, it makes sense.
  • September's love of Halloween.  Valente nails the autumn mood and suspense the same as Ray Bradbury, and that's saying something!
  • A-Through-L, the Wyverary.  I've been cultivating my own type of book-loving dragon since learning about the my high school's literary magazine the Pendragon

I'm looking forward to reading the sequels and sharing the stories with my son as he grows.  The Fairyland series is a modern classic, and is an luscious addition to any fairy tale library.

A few closing notes:

I can't emphasize enough how much Ms. Valente knows her stuff.   It's delightful to read an author who has so carefully studied Faerie--and as is the way with Faerie (and fairy tales) this book isn't simpering and innocent.  There must be blood is one of the sovereign rules of Fairyland.  There's also lying, witches, blood tithes, and unsympathetic creatures.  But the fickle, dangerous, and mysteriously ordered otherworld of folklore and human memory is intact and recognizable. The witticisms abound, and are somewhere between fact and nonsense--which means it's probably, as is the way with literary things, truth.  Such as the assertion that children have no hearts, which is what makes them terribly thoughtless, reckless, and selfish, and that we grow hearts as we age.   It's biting but beautiful observation, and put in a way that maybe skims the truth of the matter far better than psychoanalysis.

This is a book of Fairy, and sojourners should expect to get messy; charmed; ravished; and even lose their hearts. . .

{If you liked this review, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing the books via my Amazon Affiliate links.  Thanks for your support!}


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