Jessica's Reviews > In the Night Garden

In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
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Dec 30, 2009

it was amazing

Five stars--not because the book is without flaws but because I think the uniqueness of its strengths makes up for its deficiencies. This isn't the most pleasant reading experience I've ever had. No doubt the responsibility for this is shared between the author's quirks and mine. I felt the prose was a bit (and sometimes significantly more than a bit) overworked. I know it's the sort of poetic, native-sounding style the author was going for, but I find it unpleasant to be suffocated by great heaping piles of metaphor and simile. (Do you see how tight I am with irony? Yeah, we be buds). It's artistic perhaps, but also distracting. I also found it difficult to adjust to the pointlessness of the story. Not that the book wasn't pointy. In one sense, it had many points. It was multi-pronged, multi-layered, with threads that zigged, zagged, dangled and interconnected. But as far as having a beginning, middle and end, a question, a volta and a conclusion or a climax of any sort, well...it's not that type of story. The book is littered with characters who all get to tell their own stories (but very few get to actually finish them) and some of them (but not all) are sort of loosely related to the others. I don't have the sort of attention span that handles digressions well, and the multiple framing narratives with stories within stories within stories left me feeling itchy and claustrophobic. It reads kind of like a maze with a ton of loops and sharp turns and doubling back and dead ends.

So why the five stars? Because the "In the Night Garden" is special. And I write that with no sarcasm. In a way the novel is a re-envisioning of fairy tales. It turns the maiden/monster dichotomy on its head and celebrates the power and value of monstrous women. I have often bemoaned that women as a gender have a stunted and anemic literary history (to say nothing of our actual history). While boys look to cowboys, soldiers, firefighters and astronauts for role models, little girls are taught to be princesses. And this isn't a terrible thing, but the models for princessy behavior tend to sit in towers waiting for princes to rescue them while accomplishing absolutely nothing for themselves. In contrast, this book turns an admiring eye toward the witches and freaks, the stepmothers and misshapen hags--the kind of women who change the course of fairy tales. The novel presents them in all of their sharp complexity, deftly weaving their stories together until the overarching theme I was left with was one of female empowerment. The women in the story were strong, smart, selfish and generous, beautiful and horrifying, kind and cruel. They had important interests, beyond beauty and boys, and as a result, they were interesting. This is the kind of book I want to be able to read to my daughter so that she can grow up understanding that women need not settle for supporting roles in their own lives. I hold this book so highly, not because it is lovely but because it is necessary. Fairy tales like this are integral to establishing a female literary canon, and I hope to read many more of its kind so that for every milksop princess with spindle-pricked fingers, impractically long hair and glass footwear we'll have a heroine with a quick wit, a ready dagger and a yearning for an adventure not named Prince Charming.
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Tatiana I loved this book too, and also not because it was the best written, but because it was special (for me) and unique, simply unlike anything I've read before. Great review.


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