In The Night Garden – Catherynne M Valente
Towards the end of the Sandman cycle (Neil Gaiman’s now legendary comic book opus), there’s a six episode story-arc called World’s End, which features an inn at the centre of a raging blizzard. The inn is a place where travelers between dimensions can shelter from reality storms, whiling away the time until the storm abates, by carousing and telling tales, in the Chaucerian tradition. The format allows Gaiman to tell multiple short stories, and stories within stories, and sometimes stories within stories within stories. While many of the tales told feature entirely new characters and settings, Gaiman uses the structure to weave in a number of references to the Sandman pantheon of characters and themes. It is also an opportunity to pause and reflect, before embarking on the final climactic chapters, with some explicit foreshadowing to whet the appetite. As storytelling is the very essence of the Dreaming, and the calm-before-the-storm timing is so apposite, World’s End works beautifully. When I read that Catherynne M Valente had taken a similar nested-stories approach In The Night Garden, I was both intrigued and skeptical: intrigued because Valente’s oeuvre, more than anyone else, reminds me of Gaiman’s; but skeptical because nested-stories by their nature, tend to shift the focus away from narrative drive and invested protagonists. I wasn’t sure how well such a structure would work in a stand-alone piece.
The eponymous garden surrounds the King’s palace; this being a fairytale we’re not told which King, or which Kingdom but at times he’s referred to as the Caliph and it feels all very Arabian Nights. There was once an orphan, who was cast out from the palace due to the unsettling birthmarks ‘around her eyes…stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.’ Deprived of the palace amenities but with nowhere else to go, she lives off her wits, and the generosity of the local fauna, in the grounds and gardens. She is shunned by palace staff as she grows-up ‘while thirteen summers like fat orange roses sprang and withered’ until one day, a young prince (naturally) approaches her to hear her tale. This involves reading aloud the stories which are reproduced in minute detail across her eyelids, a pursuit which takes several nights and this whole book to accomplish.
At first, the tales themselves are the draw. All the usual fairy-folk are present and correct: witches, wolves, foxes, polar bears, stars, serpents, fire-birds, centaurs, grandmothers, satyrs, mermaids, griffins, wizards, princes, maidens and more kings than you could shake a scepter at. As advertised, tales are nested down through several layers at a time, with each narrator meeting somebody new who, in turn, tells their own story. With the narrative voice changing so frequently, it can be difficult to keep track of it all but helpfully each new episode is the subject of a separate chapter – or chain of chapters – with names like: the Witch’s Tale and the Grandmother’s Tale Continued. Valente is an accomplished teller-of-tales and effortlessly adopts a range of voices, drawing the reader in to a series (or should that be parallel?) of engaging tales. The language is at once lush and earthy, restoring that link with nature and the elements, so absent from the majority of our lives today. ‘Now the prince stole into the night, the shadows wrapping around him like slippery river eels, and his footfalls were black and soundless in the pine needles. He journeyed through the forest, stars flooding overhead as though they had burst through some gilded dam…The trees made a roof of many tiles over his head, a scented mosaic studded with blue clouds.’ The effect is to re-create the tradition of stories told to an audience, sitting round a fire or tucked up in bed, purporting to describe and recount actual events; which is of course how folk-tales evolved.
Valente also employs a multitude of fairytale tropes; some she plays straight, others are subverted, usually to restore the gender balance to well-worn tales: maidens climb towers to rescue princes, ships are sailed by female crews, with lady captains and papesses rule spiritual worlds. True to the grim nature of folk-tales, there’s plenty of dark deeds In The Night Garden: patricide, revenge, incest, extinctions – Valente has said that she wrote by continually dreaming up new ways to scare her audience – but surprisingly there’s very little portrayal of physical conflict. Almost all the monsters, when they are tracked down to their lair, have stories of their own to tell, which cast them in a more sympathetic light and lead to some form of peaceful resolution. Where deaths do occur they are accepted with fatalism – ‘to place your hands in the death of a beloved son is the most noble way to perish’ – and described in a matter of fact way. The theme and style invite comparison with the Children’s Book but where Byatt remains steadfastly in the real world, Valente crosses the border into Faery and never returns. The result is a far more fantastical, if less grounded, reading experience.
At times the fantastic elements border on the surreal: dead bodies are inhabited by creatures spawned by, and eventually resembling, the moon; mighty galleons grow out of trees, which have themselves grown from planks of wood; and various characters’ skins are peeled off, to be inhabited by others. Transformation and mutation become running themes: ‘metamorphosis is the most profound of acts…without it nothing grows, nothing evolves, nothing expands.’ This hybridization, the embrace of the different, and the dark, lurid imagery is reminiscent of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon. Many of these appropriated weird images, of course, have their roots in folk tales, which themselves have evolved and modified in their telling down the ages. Valente appears to be going back to the source: New Old Weird anyone?
The stories and their Russian doll(s) structure are intriguing in themselves but inevitably, the individual fragments fit together as part of an over-arching tale. Al-A-Nur is the anointed city, a sparkling metropolis of dreams, with fountains of silver and glass and minarets of diamond and topaz, ‘a carved box which holds the wisdom of the world…the paradise of the rich and wise’. At the centre of the city, organized in concentric circles are twelve towers, each dedicated to a different religion, except for the central Tower of the Papess, which presides over the other faiths and ensures peace. One tower in particular, dedicated to Saint Sigrid, eventually becomes the focus of the principal story arc as we learn about Sigrid herself and the prophesy which foretells her return. Al-A-Nur isn’t introduced until half way through the book, though earlier tales refer to it. Once its presence is established the real arc begins but even then, sub-stories circle around the main thrust of the tale before eventually being drawn in towards the plug-hole of this book’s climax.
There are many thematic strands and my one reservation with this first half of the Orphan’s Tales duology, is that there are perhaps too many for the narrative to bear. On top of those already mentioned, there’s a clear feminist strand: ‘Being a maiden, you see, is not quite the same as being alive. It is more like being a statue.’ Plus ruminations on rules: ‘Where there is a witch and a prince there is a way.’; power: ‘Only princes believe in the greater good. Kings know there is only the reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.’; pluralism: ‘who can know what happened in the dim dawn of the world? We do our best with how the world appears in our own eyes.’ and dysfunctional families: ‘it is rarely the places that birth us which see our true worth.’ amongst others. The motif’s come thick and fast but with the main thrust of the narrative heading elsewhere, there’s a danger of them descending into aphorism, substituting for profundity. I will withhold judgment on this point, until I’ve read the second installment – In The Cities of Coin and Spice – I hope that some of the more nascent thematic strands will be developed further.
In fact, while In The Night Garden is an engaging and intricate work of literature in its own right, Valente’s ultimate success in crafting a satisfying whole from these extremely promising raw materials, depends on how well the second volume pulls the strands together; something she’ll need to do if the comparisons with Gaiman are to stand up. That said, this is a fantastic start: Valente has distilled the very essence of fairy-tales to fashion a modern and multi-faceted version of the Arabian Nights. The concentric structure leads to continual delights as the true story unfolds elliptically and while I hope there’s plenty more to come, the tales contained in this volume are more than enough to be going on with. ‘I shall tell you another, even more strange and wonderful tomorrow, if you will return to the garden of the night.’ The orphan says to her prince. I’ll certainly be going back, to that enchanted place where stories are told and imaginations can run wild, safe in the knowledge that nothing can harm us, no matter how frightened we may feel; at the end of every day.
Apart from anything else, I’m still waiting for Iggle Piggle to show up.