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In The Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

01/11/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy In The Night Garden (The First Book in ‘The Orphan’s Tales’) in the USA - or Buy In The Night Garden (The First Book in ‘The Orphan’s Tales’) in the UK

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 483 page illustrated enlarged paperback. Price: $14.00 (US), $18.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-553-38403-1.

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At its simplest, ‘In The Night Garden’ the first book of 'The Orphan's Tales' is a collection of short stories tied together by the character telling them, a strange orphan-girl living in a royal garden. Each story is interlinked and while put forward as stories few of them are really free-standing narratives in their own right, so calling them stories here as opposed to chapters in any other book is a distinction without a difference. But what this division does do is keep the recursive quality of the book intact and as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the stories being told by the girl to her new friend, a young prince, aren't about the mythical past but a historical narrative within which they will both end up playing key roles.

In that sense then, the obvious similarity with the 'Arabian Nights' is somewhat misleading and though both share an oriental quality to them as well as some of the same tropes and plot hooks, ‘In The Night Garden’ is a very different book in many ways. In fact, closer parallels can be drawn with the feminist re-tellings of fairy tales invented by Angela Carter in 'The Bloody Chamber' and subsequently made into films such as 'The Company Of Wolves'. In particular, the author of ‘In The Night Garden’, Catherynne Valente, gently explores adult behaviour through the relationship between the two child characters. Just as Carter perceives the transition from girlhood to womanhood as a key part of many fairy tales, so Valente has the two lead characters become aware of how adults treat one another through the act of re-telling various violent, intense, passionate, and often bloody stories.

With this said, Valente isn't Carter and her writing is much more studied and far less immediately engaging. She lacks Carter's brevity and ability to winkle out the heart of a tale within a few pages and the repeated breaks between the past and present makes this book a difficult one to get into and at times even to follow. At times, her feminist re-telling is just plain clumsy. Where Carter would use a colour to suggest a girl becoming a woman, Valente simply has them all get aboard a boat called Maidenhead. But at her best, Valente conjures up a rich world filled with magic and adventure and for all its complexity this is a book worth persisting with if fairy tale worlds are your thing.

As should be clear, this book may be about children but it isn't a children's book. The content is quite mature and while there isn't explicit sex or horrific violence, much of both is implied. There's a feral quality to the storylines, from the wise animal companions through to the brutish behaviour of almost all of the male character. Being the first book in a two-book series, the storylines themselves are not necessarily resolved within the scope of the book and that makes this volume by itself difficult to review in terms of resolution, but at least some of the sub-stories have an ending, though all too often involving yet another layer of stories.

The many illustrations by Michael Kaluta certainly add to its charm, but the unusual deckle binding doesn't really work with paperbacks, making them look more like dog-eared copies rather than precious tomes. When all is said and done, it has to be accepted that not everyone will like this book. The lack of resolution to what is an incredibly convoluted narrative will put off many readers before they get through the first few stories. Valente's prose isn't smooth enough to whip the reader along even if it isn't clear what's going on, so a lot will depend on how far the reader is willing to accept a confusing, complex storybook on its own terms.

Neale Monks

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