In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente. ★★★★★
Catherynne M. Valente’s In the Night Garden is practically indescribable. It is a beautiful, wondrous book and undoubtedly one of the best I will read all year.
In the garden of a palace, there lives a cast out girl who says she has stories written upon her eyelids. Most of the other palace residents scorn her, but one young prince begins to come to her to hear the stories.
My initial impression was that In the Night Garden was a short story collection with framing device. However, this brute description does convey the intertwined and layered nature of the stories.
In the Night Garden is divided into two books, for the two different tales the girl tells the boy. These stories are both set in the same world, and some characters appear in both. Each of these stories is also not just one story, but many, for the characters the girl describes hear tales told by other characters, who may contain stories within their own stories. The end result is like Celtic knot-work, or perhaps a painting by Seurat – the stories twin and blend together to produce a greater whole.
“He tried to reconstruct the story in his mind, but it kept getting confused, bleeding into itself like watercolors.”
For instance, the first story the girl tells is about a prince who runs away from the castle to find adventure. He comes to a cabin in a meadow with many geese. Being hungry, the prince kills a goose, upon which moment the goose transforms into a dead maiden and a witch rushes out of the cabin to hold a knife to his throat. The prince pleads for mercy, and the witch begins to tell her own tale, which in turn includes a tale told by her grandmother, who includes tales told to her. All of these stories tie into and further the greater story and world.
“Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a Witch.”
The world Valente has created is imaginative and marvelous. Stars and monsters walk the earth, and no one is what you would expect. A city is built of twelve towers, each with their own faith. A ship is crewed by female monsters, and the stepmother is not evil but kind. While In the Night Garden feels like fairy tales, all the stories are wholly original, not revisions. However, Valente also twists and subverts many of the usual expectations of the genre, particularly when it comes to female characters.
“Maidens stand still, they are lovely statues and all admire them. Witches do not stand still. I was neither, but better that I err on the side of witchery, witchery that unlocks towers and empties ships.”
I particularly love the character of the witch, Knife. But there are so many different characters here (and so many of them female!) that there is no true protagonist, no true main character. Everyone here is the protagonist of their own tale, and everyone’s voice is heard.
In the Night Garden is best read for the journey of it, not the destination. While the intertwined nature of the tales does give it a forward thrust, you need to savor the stories and not rush to the end. Besides, each story leaves unanswered questions and threads that could be picked up and transformed into a new story. As written by Valente:
“Stories,’ the green-eyed Sigrid said, unperturbed, ‘are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words.”
I’ve been recommending this book to everyone under the sun, raving about it to friends and family ever since I picked it up. The prose is gorgeous, the tales delightful, and it even includes intricately beautiful black and white illustrations. In the Night Garden is a book that you should not hesitate to open.