Like much of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, In the Night Garden, the first book in a duology called The Orphan’s Tales, is very much its own thing: you won’t have read anything quite like it. Its frame story concerns a girl who’s shunned for her strange birthmark:
her eyelids and the flesh around her eyes were stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.
Look closer, though, and there are words in the ink, words telling tales of strange places and people. Once upon a time, the girl, who lives ignored in the fabulous garden of a great palace, meets a boy, the son of the sultan who lives within it; and she begins telling the tales on her eyes to him. The novel is made up of that telling, which is not linear, not a succession of stories one after the other; instead, the tales are intricately linked, nested, characters in one tale telling another and so on. The effect is that of a tapestry: the sheer weight of tales sketches a world for us, and some stories we see from multiple viewpoints, so that one character’s victory might be another’s tragedy.
The novel’s divided into two “books”, two self-enclosed sets of stories: the Book of the Steppe, in which a prince kills a goose and gains a relative; and the Book of the Sea, in which a young woman goes looking for a saint.
The two Orphan’s Tales novels are very much early Valente; in fact the only work I’ve read of hers that came out before them is The Grass-Cutting Sword, and even that was published in the same year as In the Night Garden (2006). It shows in the prose style: while the novel still exhibits Valente’s eye for a colourful metaphor (from a random page: “She was an imperious woman, and my father obeyed her every whisper as eagerly as a colt its master”), there’s less of a sense that every word is carefully chosen for its jewel-like complexity; less of a distinctive voice than I’m used to with her later works.
So what else is going on in this textual tapestry? A couple of themes leap out: monstrosity and the vilification thereof; womanhood and the infantilisation thereof. And, of course, the sheer unreliability of story, the way one tale is only one point of view. The weaving together of these separate tales allows us to glimpse the holes between them, where the truth lives, or perhaps just an unrepresented point of view. This structural revelation of narrative lacunae is reflected in the novel’s thematic exploration of people who are often sidelined by stories – monsters and women and monstrous women.
It’s an absorbing novel: I particularly enjoyed the Book of the Sea, with its sailors and its religious orders and its holy war. I do feel a little uneasy about the Middle Eastern vibe some of the settings have – particularly the Garden and the two warring cities in the second half of the book, Shadukiam and Al a-Nur – which feels potentially exoticising; it’s there not to represent a culture honestly but to conjure up a sense of the magical and the foreign. And the enchanting prose that generally draws me to Valente’s works is largely absent. But it’s still a good choice if you’re after fairytale-tinted fantasy set in a world that feels wide and wild.