The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Reading through Catherynne Valente’s first children’s book, I found it increasingly difficult to imagine what my review for it would be like. It almost defies categorization, even as it’s hugely reminiscent of various other stories: not only myths and folklore, but also the likes of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan, as well as authors such as Eva Ibbotson, E. Nesbit and a dash of J.K. Rowling. There’s even a trace of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if you’ve ever wondered how it must have felt for the Pevensie siblings to go from kings and queens in Narnia to their old child selves back in England in the space of a few minutes. And yet there’s a definite stamp of originality in the way Valente tells a story, both in her writing style and the book’s content.
It wasn’t until I had finished that I became aware that Valente had actually coined a new phrase to describe her work: mythpunk. She defines this as a subgenre of mythic fiction, one which bears a slight resemblance to steampunk, in which classic fairytales get a postmodern makeover. According to her: “the term describes a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, world-building, and academic fantasy.” It results in a story that resembles no other, whilst still containing plenty of echoes from tales of old.
As such, Valente’s take on Fairyland includes various wonders: a city of cloth, another made of bread and milk, islands populated by half-people who must join together if they want to complete their sentences, herds of bicycles migrating over grassy plains, and a woman carved entirely from soap, who washes people’s courage, wishes and luck. Rudimentary science and movie newsreels are present, and things like evolution and Charles Darwin are mentioned, giving what is otherwise a traditional fairytale a unique modernistic feel.
September is young girl living in Omaha, Nebraska who dreams of escaping her humdrum life of routine. With her father away at war and her mother working shifts as a mechanic (suggesting that all this takes place during WWII), September longs for adventure. Luckily for her, “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.” Whisked away to Fairyland, September soon finds herself in the company of a wyvern called A-through-L, the hybrid offspring of a wyvern and a library, with extensive knowledge of any word lying between the two letters of his name. Later she becomes acquainted with a Marid, a boy with dark blue skin and strange tattoos who fills the damsel-in-distress role, and with a floating, glowing lamp that communicates by ever-changing words written on its sides.
Surrounded by wonders aplenty, and kept safe by a number of obscure rules designed to help her navigate this strange new world, September eventually takes up a number of quests, as befits a visitor to Fairyland. Soon she learns more about how the place is run: that the Marquess, the terrible girl-ruler of Fairyland, has filled the land with bureaucracy, chained down the wings of dragons, and wears a large sinister hat. Having usurped the throne of the missing Good Queen Mallow, the Marquess’s aim is to make Fairyland safe for children to visit. But is it really Fairyland without the inherent danger? Would there be any stories without it?
Like J. M. Barrie, who once described children as “heartless”, so too does Valente do away with the idea of children as innocents — or at least the assumption that innocence denotes kindness and generosity instead of selfishness and ignorance. That said, September grows over the course of her journey; it shapes and changes her, and it’s clear that she’s not the same girl she was at its inception. Her journey is poignant, exciting, awe-inspiring, frightening, and by the end — even a little tragic. There’s plenty of room left over for a sequel, one to be found in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.
Likewise, September bears a striking resemblance to Alice (in Wonderland), especially with her Mary Jane shoes. Valente’s narrative voice is about as close to Lewis Carroll as you’re ever likely to get: whimsical and breezy, but with a razor sharp wit and deceptively dark undertones, including small asides to the reader that fill us in on background details concerning September, Fairyland and various subplots. It plays with the reader’s expectations, keeping them constantly on their toes, and remains fully aware of its role as the narrator. There are in-jokes and wry comments and speculation on the nature of the story that September finds herself in. A couple of times it feels a little intrusive, but your mileage may vary heavily in this case — I suspect that the language and tone with which Valente tells her tale may well be the most divisive element of the book’s reception.
Whether children will enjoy it is another question, for at times it felt less like a story for children that is sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy than a story written for adults who enjoy fairytales. At least, this was the vibe that I picked up on, and certainly the commentary on the nature of childhood and the narrator’s tendency to speak to the reader as though they were much older and wiser than September gave me the sense that Valente had a much older audience in mind than the publishers’ recommendation.
There are certainly a lot of dark elements: the true story behind the Marquess, an island of homicidal furniture (more disconcerting than it sounds), and even Death itself, who appears as a small brown creature, explaining that she appears as such: “only because you are small; you are young and far from your Death, so I seem as anything would seem if you saw it from a long way off – very small, very harmless. But I am always closer than I appear. As you grow, I shall grow with you, until at the end I shall loom huge and dark over your bed, and you will shut your eyes so as not to see me.” I was reading this late at night, and found myself getting quite spooked! Between the exploration of childhood (as told from an adult POV) and the style in which the book is written, I’m not entirely sure I would give this book to a child — not because I don’t think they could handle it, but because I’m not entirely sure it’s written with children in mind.
The illustrations by Ana Juan supplement the story perfectly, and may end up being as inseparable from Cathy Valente’s text as Quentin Blake’s are to Roald Dahl’s. All in all, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making left me captivated, and eager to seek out more of Valente’s work.