How do you even begin to describe this book? I was familiar with Catherynne Valente through reading her charming The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland series, all of which are targeted at a much younger audience than this. Yet even with those books, there was a certain amount of darkness underlying the whimsical elements, just as there are hefty themes and frightening ideas in the likes of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland and J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan.
There currently seem to be a growing number of books in the “adult fairy tale” genre, and In the Night Garden certainly falls into that category. By now it’s common knowledge that the oldest of fairy tales weren’t necessarily just for children. The Brothers Grimm had to significantly sanitize many of the shocking elements of the tales they compiled (exorcising all the incest, bloodshed, mutilation and rape, of which there was plenty) a trend that continued when Walt Disney began to cater to family audiences, turning to fairy tales for inspiration and further stripping them of anything regarded as even remotely unsavoury.
So by now “fairy tales” are considered the sole province of children, though a few glimpses of what they used to be sometimes manage to slip through in various retellings (even Disney knows how to crank up the scary imagery). And with the growing popularity of “adult fairy tales,” it’s apparent that there’s a market for readers who want to explore the key aspects of fairy tales (the symbolism, the motifs, the archetypes, the themes) in their original form — filled with overt death, sex, violence, fanaticism and other subjects that are generally considered unsuitable for young ears.
Whether coddling our children is a good thing (I know plenty that seem to enjoy Coraline, for example) or what exactly encompasses a fairy tale anyway are debates for another time; suffice to say that Catherynne Valente‘s In the Night Garden (the first of a duology) is geared toward older readers who enjoy intense imagery, poetic-prose, and complex storytelling.
Heavily based and inspired by The Arabian Nights, the book’s most notable feature is its non-linear storytelling. The framing device involves the introduction of a young girl with a strange birthmark across her eyes, who lives by herself in the expansive grounds of a Sultan’s palace. Shunned by the nobility and servants alike, one of the Sultan’s many children (a boy) eventually finds and befriends her, learning the reason for her facial markings. They are tattoos that contain hidden stories, and only once they are told out loud might the girl be free of them.
And so she begins her narrative, delving into a myriad of tales involving shape-shifting witches, fox-headed pirates, ill-tempered mermaids, transformed polar bears, mysterious snake-gods and more — so much more. As with Arabian Nights, the thread of narrative delves in and out of various stories, much like a set of Russian nesting dolls or ever-decreasing concentric circles. One character will share their backstory, which involves yet another character with their own story to share, the overarching story sometimes sinking five or so stories deep.
This can get a bit frustrating at times if you’re caught up in a particular story, only for it to come to an abrupt halt in order for someone else to take over the flow of the narrative (usually at a complete tangent from whatever else was going on at the time) but the beauty of Valente‘s work is that everything comes increasingly more interconnected as the story goes on. Certain characters pop up in various sub-stories, and figures that have been wandering about in disguise or under an assumed identity eventually reveal themselves and their relationships to other narratives. It’s like watching a dazzling tapestry being pulled together over the course of several hours, and I can safely say it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before.
With inspiration drawn from ancient folklore and myths from around the world, there’s really no shortage of imaginative wonders on display: seers with mouths in their bellies, moon-creatures that possess dead bodies, griffins that fight a race of one-eyed warriors, stars whose light does strange things to those who manage to chance upon them — this is just scratching the surface of what Valente has to offer. Once you get going, there seems to be no end to the imaginative force that she wields, and all of it is told in such dense poetic-prose. You almost get drunk on it, and the only other fantasy writers I could possibly compare her to would be Patricia McKillip and (to a lesser extent) Laini Taylor. And to be honest, I think Valente exceeds them both.
There is a feminist slant in the sense that it involves dozens of female characters with agency and complexity, and plenty of diversity, which is only fitting when so much of the story seems takes place in an Eastern-inspired world. Aptly enough, there are endless subversions and twists on the usual fantasy tropes: of all the damsels, wizards, witches, kings, beggars and other familiar fairy-tale characters, I can guarantee you that their stories won’t play out the way you expected. Michael Kaluta provides striking illustrations that help give some of the wonders that Valente conjures a sense of realism.
One thing is certain: this book isn’t for everyone, and it deserves significant time and attention. You definitely don’t want to treat this as a bit of light reading, for the intricacy of the plotting and the prose deserves to be savoured. Like all the best books that the adult fairy tale genre has to offer, In the Night Garden feels fresh and yet familiar, complex yet simplistic, entertaining yet profound. Needless to say, I’ll be tracking down its other half: In the Cities of Coin and Spice.