Catherynne M. Valente – In the Night Garden

  Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Title: In the Night Garden
Series: The Orphan’s Tales

Published: November 2006
Publisher: Bantam Dell
Length:  483 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Why I picked it up: Fan of the author
Rating: 5 stars
Challenges: TBR Double Dare
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

Whooaa, this is the fourth book I’m giving five stars! For me, that fifth star is very precious and can only be awarded to books I would consider my ‘all-time favourites’. (For the curious, the other books that have gotten five stars are Wild, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kafka on the Shore.) 4.5 stars is also very good, and I would consider books with a 4.5 star rating favourites as well, but what separates 4.5 and 5 is that I had no negative thoughts whatsover about a 5 star book. For example, I adored Catch-22 but gave it a 4.5 because it was a pretty hefty book and a bit difficult to follow. So, even though I had a very minor ‘complaint’ about Catch-22, that meant I had to take it down a notch in my personal ranking system. I am explaining all this so you can see how much I really did love this book – enough to give it 5 stars! 😉 I discovered Valente in the summer when I read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I found this to be a lovely story, and I was all the more intrigued when I discovered that it’s Valente’s first work for children but she had published other novels for adults. I can’t remember why I picked In the Night Garden to read first but am I glad that I did!

This book has a rather unique structure. Stories are contained within stories, creating a deep and layered narrative. I’ve read that this is similar to One Thousand and One Nights, but sadly that’s a collection of folk tales I haven’t yet familiarized myself with. However, I also read that In the Night Garden differs from Nights in that all the stories are interwoven together and connect, relate, support, carry on from one to the next. A quote from Valente, found on her GoodReads page:

The structure is inspired by AN, but it is not, in fact, the same structure. The stories in 1001 do not come together to create one big narrative–OT is building on that structure, not copying it. The stories, beyond naming a character Dinarzad in order to tip my hat to AN, are not inspired by that work.

This is a good part of what fascinates me so much about this book. The imagination and creativity needed to write such a story! I was blown away. You would think it easy to muck up taking on such an ambitious project, but Valente’s execution is flawless. When I first began to start the book, I thought ‘Oh dear, this could complicated very fast…’ but I had no trouble following the stories, who was narrating, etc. I loved the framing and layering. The stories seem to melt together, the characters and perspectives shift easily (by which I mean you may read one story told from one character’s point of view early on in the book, then read part of the same story from a different character’s point of view later on – case in point, tying it all together with Eyvind). The novel consists of tales told by an orphan girl who lives alone in a Palace garden – everyone thinks she’s a demon and they leave her alone, but one day a boy visits her and she begins to tell him tales that are inked on her face, around her eyes – this novel is the tales written around her left eye. The tales are divided into two books, and are almost wholly separate but slowly it emerges that the two main stories connect and really are one. Encompassing the entire novel is The Orphan’s Tales, and then the two main other one’s are The Prince’s Tale, containing mostly The Witch’s Tale, and The Pale Girl’s Tale, containing mostly The Net-Weaver’sTale, and from there each tale is broken down further, containing others of their own. So, the reader is often three tales deep (hope that makes sense!). Each level is significant and can stand on its own, however, each tale is a strong one.

Then there is the matter of the tales themselves and the writing style. This novel contains a wide variety of stories, from deep, mystical, thoughtful tales (such as those told by the Witch in the first book) to funny, charming, parody tales (see the Marsh King and the Prince formula), and each tales is unique, each tale is engaging the writing never falters despite adopting many different styles. Valente’s creativity is evident in almost every sentence. For example, I loved how she used the idea of Stars. One tale is about a ship grown from a tree. Beautiful ideas are abound in this novel. Another important aspect that results from the writing style and types of tales told are the numerous characters. I never felt there were too many characters, even though the cast was quite large due to the structure of the novel, and each character felt like they were their own person with their own mind and voice, not just some fantasy stereotype. I believe Valente is a very strong writer to maintain her level of story-telling through 500 pages, through such a variety of stories that all connect. Often I’ll skim through certain parts or paragraphs of a novel, just because the writing doesn’t engage me enough to be deserving of my full attention – not once did I skim In the Night Garden; I savoured every word. Reading this book was very peaceful, calming, for me, the stories were beautiful and seductive in a way too few stories are; In the Night Garden lures you in and never lets up for a moment to give you a chance to leave.

The girl closed her large eyes as she spoke, so that her eyelids and tehir mosaic covering seemed to float like black lilies in the paleness of her face. Frogs sent emerald notes up into the air, and owls sang in low gleaming strands, resting in black branches, veiled in the violet breath of jacaranda flowers. Under their harmonics, her voice sighed back and forth. The girl drank from the wine flask, running her fingers over its engraved surface. The wind rustled her hair like petals on a lake. 


“Love, I’ve never been anyone’s mother; I don’t know how to talk to young or old. But don’t stop smiling just because I flap my mouth and say something that’s not dressed around the edges like a lace tablecloth. Thicken up and we’ll get along fine.”

Perhaps some might say Valente’s style of writing is a bit over the top, too fancy, too ornate. Too many metaphors and the like. Not me – it’s just the kind of style I eat up, as you’ll have gathered from the praise I am heaping on this book. 😉

In summary, there are three wonderful aspects to this novel and they are all executed brilliantly: Story format, types of tales, writing style. While I read and admire a lot of books, there are only a few authors who directly inspire my own writing, who I turn to when I need to remind myself how I wish to write. For the longest time, this group consisted only of Neil Gaiman and Cornelia Funke – I am happy to say I can add another author to this group.

P.S. – Did I mention there’s a second volume? Consisting of the tales inked on the orphan’s girl right eye. Oh, I cannot wait to read it but I will save it for a special occasion…don’t want to spoil myself with too much good writing!