Monday, February 13, 2012
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
by Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends, 2011
After reading On Basilisk Station I was kind of desperate for something that would feel more me, but I wasn't feeling like a re-read. I've had my eye on Valente's stuff for years and years now, particularly as one of the comments one tends to hear is that she writes beautifully and I am a big fan of beautiful writing that isn't self-consciously so. She's a poet, too, and in my experience I tend to really like novels by people who are also poets. This book in particular seemed like just the right sort of thing, so I ... I bought it. On impulse. I don't usually do that. But I'm very glad I did.
This book takes all the surreality and other trappings of fairytales and folktales and inserts it confidently into a fantasy tale, such that we have here something that feels, looks and smells like a fairytale, but is far, far deeper. The characters, despite appearing as though they could be the two dimensional folk we know from fairytales, develop into richer, rounded characters sometimes with only a few words. The economy of Valente's language is admirable, and what she can do with a few words is wonderful. The imagery is full and stunning and whimsical, but never without its hint of darkness -- which just makes everything shine more brightly. The story itself is inventive, new clothes hung on old frameworks and both are transformed.
September is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in Omaha with her mother. Her father has gone off to war in Europe, and her mother works long hours at a factory building airplane engines. She loves both her parents and they love her, but September feels frustrated and bored; and one evening, while she's washing dishes before her mother gets home, the Green Wind comes by flying on the Leopard of Little Breezes to ask her if she wants to go to Fairyland. It's an offer September doesn't even think of refusing. But when she gets there, it's quite clear that not all is well. A witch has had her Spoon stolen and her brothers killed. Flying is tightly regulated, and fairies and wyverns have their wings chained. And Good Queen Mallow has disappeared, replaced by The Marquess, a girl who at least has a wonderful hat.
Aside from the writing and the imagination behind the story, both of which are impressive, the tone reminded me (in a good way) of The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker. There's something restrained about it, a recognition of sadness and pain without letting those things overwhelm the story or the reader. Melancholy is present but so is wonder and joy and amazement, and they are in balance, connected and inseparable. I think this is maybe an important thing in a book written for older kids, and I think it's hard to get right.
Valente also gets the sheer volume of childhood emotions right. One of my favourite sections in The Girl Who... is when September, having had to make a number of very difficult decisions and having had a number of really difficult things happen to her, has to catch and eat a fish. And when she meets a rescuer, it's her pained confession of the fact that rung absolutely true with me. Because for me, too, that would have been the worst of the things that had happened, though to an adult it might have seemed the littlest thing. And the response of the rescuer is perfect too.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with a bent for whimsy and wonder. It's definitely appropriate for older children; I am considering it seriously for my parent-child book club, though it would be a summer book because it's a bit long. It's also wonderful for older readers who will get quite a lot out of the story. One last little thing, that isn't that little: I have rarely met a book with such a perfect ending. I'm not doing this book justice. I can only say I'll be reading it again, and often.