Monday, February 13, 2012

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

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends, 2011
256 pages

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.

9 comments:

Cecelia said...

I know you said that you weren't doing the book justice, but that last paragraph was just perfect.

I love this book so very much, and I think I shall have to re-read it soon.

Did you know that there will be a Fairyland #2 and #3? I can't wait!

Marg said...

I think I really need to read this book! I loved one of her earlier novels, and have heard so many good things about this one!

Aarti said...

"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."
Oh, what a beautiful and perfect sentence about this book! I agree :-)

kiirstin said...

Cecelia -- I didn't know there were to be sequels... I liked the ending so much, as open as it was! But I could definitely see reading more about Fairyland, if they involve September or not.

Marg -- Which novel did you read before? I am trying to figure out where to go with her next. My library has Palimpsest but I'd have to order in (or buy) The Orphan's Tales series.

Aarti -- Thank you. :) This may sound odd, but I think it's maybe an easy book to write beautifully about even if I can't do it justice.

Jeanne said...

I gave this to my daughter for Christmas and I think she liked it, although I didn't hear much about it. I might have to go rummage through her room and see what I think of it.

Marg said...

Kiirstin, I read the first of the Orphans Tales books. Really good!

kiirstin said...

Jeanne -- I think this is one of those books that may appeal in different ways to different generations, though there's lots to like in common too. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Marg -- Good to know! Thank you.

Nymeth said...

I love what you said about childhood emotions. Also, I really need to get around to reading Kage Baker.

kiirstin said...

I've only read the two by Baker, but I think that she's definitely a worthwhile read! I especially think you'd like The Hotel Under the Sand.