Recently, I started reading a book that was so compelling, I could scarcely force myself to put it down. Indeed, I have stayed up far past my bedtime on several occasions, greedily devouring more and more of the chapters. This book is called The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden, and it was written by Catherynne M. Valente.
The book begins with a frame story worthy of Scheherazade and The One Thousand and One Nights. A young orphan wanders the Palace Garden, alone, an outsider. She has one distinguishing feature that marks her immediately, for her eyes are permanently ringed with dark lines:
“Now this child had a strange and wonderful birthmark, in that her eyelids and the flesh around her eyes were stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots…It colored her eyes such that when she was grown she would never have to smoke her eyes with kohl.”
Early in the book it is explained that these dark lines are in fact not an accident of birth. They are instead either a curse or a gift from an old woman who visited the girl when she was an infant. A curse, because her strange visage causes people to fear her. A gift, because, well, they are not merely lines. No, the dark lines are composed of incredibly small words. These words are, taken together, stories.
One day, a boy shyly introduces himself to the girl. They strike up a relationship. Their bond is one of storyteller and audience, at least in the beginning. The boy brings food, warmth, companionship, and humanity into the lonely girl’s life. In return, she offers him her stories. These stories unfold one within another, revealing themselves initially as sparks. A spark from one tale ignites another, older and deeper tale. And much like the Sultan Shahriyar in Scheherazade’s story, the boy in The Orphan’s Tales listens breathlessly as each plot unwinds itself in the words of his mysterious companion.
So far we’ve met two of the book’s central characters, the girl and the boy. However, there are many more interesting figures inhabiting The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden. I don’t want to spoil any surprises here. However, I will mention that there is a Witch, a Prince, and a Beast.
There is also an element of metamorphosis in the book. When I think of transformation, I am always reminded of the Roman poet Ovid and his tales in the Metamorphoses. And while the influences in this book are not so much classical, the comparison to Ovid and his tales is still apt.
As you can probably tell both from my description and the cast of characters, the stories are in a sense fairy tales. These are not typical fairy tales though, and certainly not the innocuous stuff you’d expect when you hear the term. The tales can be dark and dangerous. Not exactly the type of book you’d read to a child before bed. And since I am no child, I truly enjoy reading these fanciful tales before I drift off and do a backflip into the arms of Morpheus (thanks to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for that wonderful image incidentally).
This book is available at Amazon.com :
Have you read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden? If so, share your thoughts about the book here!