The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: Fiction, fairy tale, fantasy, children’s literature, it broke my heart
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Summary: September is swept away to Fairyland when the Green Wind comes flying in her window atop a leopard. What follows is an amazing journey full of dangerous choices, sacrifice, and a vivid cast of characters. This delightfully modern fairy tale will have you smiling at September’s wit and crying through her heartbreak.
I have always been a firm believer in the importance of a strong beginning and an even stronger ending in literature. A strong beginning is required to get the reader interested in investing their time, but an ending is crucial because it dictates how a reader will feel about the entire novel. A novel can be wonderful, but if the ending is lacking that is what the reader will take away from the entire experience.
Myself and my fellow Bibliomantics love the Harry Potter series, but the unrealistic rainbows and puppy dog epilogue at the end of The Deathly Hallows Rowling tacked onto the series left a lot of people feeling disappointed and let down. (See Stephanie’s hilarious post about the epilogue here.) Finality is a good thing, but I much prefer a little punch and even a little mystery to get me thinking. Rowling’s ending was just so-so. Now The Hunger Games series, that was an ending, at both times painful and beautiful.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland left me with the same sort of feeling when I closed the book. I read the last three paragraphs over six times with a knot in my chest before putting the book down and sat there just thinking about how perfect it was. Even now as I type this weeks later I still feel that ending in my throat. That is what I want in my endings. Beauty, pain, thoughtfulness. Perfection. Ruin the ending and you ruin the entire book. Thankfully, Valente delivers perfection.
As I probably have mentioned one thousand billion times by now I am very drawn to book covers because I do judge a book by its cover. Very unfair, I know. This cover is gorgeous, putting me in the mind of classic fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland. (I particularly think it is based on this photo of Alice and the Cheshire Cat, specifically because of the way Alice and September are standing in almost identical poses). The bright colours are also quite helpful, and I especially love the red used on Ell.
Ell is perhaps my favourite character in the novel. He is September’s friend and his full name is the Honorable Wyvern A-Through-L (Ell for short, GET IT!). He is a red wyvern, a wyvern being a creature like a dragon but lacking in “forepaws” whose father was a library. For this reason, he refers to himself as a Wyverary (half wyvern half library). He is called A-Through-L because this is the portion of the encyclopedia he memorized growing up. As he tells September, “I shall amuse you along the way… By reciting all the things I know. Aardvark, Abattoir, Abdication, Adagio, Alligator, Araby…”
Much like Alice, this novel is also whimsical, at times nonsensical, and full of clever wordplay. September enters Fairyland through an ocean much as Alice enters Wonderland through the Pool of Tears. They are both extremely clever for their age and show true pluck in the face of adversity, pulling through when things look their bleakest.
Fairyland itself is rich in smells and tastes, and I found myself salivating while reading about it. One town is covered in roads made of muffin tops and has thick sliced bread houses with sugar encrusted shingles and mortar made out of creamy butter. There is a bathhouse run by a golem made out of soap named Lye (who amusingly has the word, “TRUTH” carved into her forehead) that I wish actually existed. We are told the bath house has tubs that smell of mint, sweet cakes, cider, rainstorms, vanilla, rum, and maple syrup, with golden water and enough soap bubbles to last an eternity.
Valente uses these recognizable fairy tale conventions to her advantage, but she adds a touch of modernity to the entire proceeding. Fairyland has a sense of bureaucracy, created by its new monarch the evil Marquess. There is talk of immigration papers and diplomatic immunity, September herself requiring a temporary visa to enter. It is a modern sort of Fairyland, run on the same system of organised chaos that seems to govern the United States.
Even the witches that September meets are held in check by this strange new system in Fairyland. As Hello, Goodbye, and their husband Manythanks (oh yeah- there’s polygamy in this book) tell us, witches need to have a little deviance or they will be kicked out of the witches union. You’d think polygamy would be deviant enough, but Goodbye and Hello are also sisters and their husband is a wairwulf: a wolf for seven days and a human on the full moon. One is married to the man, the other to the wolf (so there’s a bit of bestiality in there too). They also teach us that witches look into the future and should not be confused with sorceresses who perform spells, wizards who can do magic, enchantresses who make people do things, and brujas who can transform into owls or cats.
This satire on modernity in Fairyland however is played up to greatest effect when September meets the Nasnas. The Nasnas are half people cut down the middle who conjoin with others to make full people. We meet Not who has a brother named Neither and a sister named Nor. She can join with either of these relatives to make a full person and thus communicate with September. This immediately put me in mind of Aristophanes and the creation of love which he discusses in Plato’s Symposium. My conjecture was confirmed when Not discusses the folklore of her people and jokingly says, “I think I recall something about ‘Cosmic Scissors’, and ‘Entropy’, and ‘Where Love Comes From'”. Regardless of my random tangent, we are told that the Nasnas once had a life of relaxation which involved laying around and eating tropical fruit. However, since the change in Fairyland took place they work in a shoe factory and as she says, now know the “satisfaction of a full day’s labor, of punchcards and taxable income”. How thrilling. Like I said, it’s satire at its finest.
As previously mentioned the reason for this new world order in Fairyland is due to the working of the Marquess, who lives in Pandemonium (the capitol of Hell in John Milton’s Paradise Lost) and has a panther named Iago (after the villainous murderer in Shakespeare’s Othello). She pretty much screams evil. She tells September that she changed the world in order to sanitize it for the children like herself who find themselves in Fairyland. “I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you”. In essence, the Marquess is “fixing” Fairyland in much the same way that Disney makes fairy tales more accessible for children, by scrubbing them of all violence and reality.
Thankfully Valente rails against this convention, filling her modern fairy tale with bits and pieces of real life. Upon first entering Fairyland, September is giving four choices in her path (we learn this choice is what dictates the course of her adventure and in turn the novel). The sign she sees points to different choices: “TO LOSE YOUR WAY”, “TO LOSE YOUR LIFE”, “TO LOSE YOUR MIND”, or “TO LOSE YOUR HEART”. September chooses to lose her heart since she does not want to go insane or die and she reasons that she is already lost. At this point the narrator breaks the fourth wall, saying, “You and I, being grown-up and having lost our hearts at least twice or thrice along the way, might shut our eyes and cry out, Not that way child! But as we have said, September was Somewhat Heartless, and felt herself reasonably safe on that road. Children always do”.
Things get even darker when September gets a visit from Death. Since September is 12 her death appears very small and is not very frightening in the least. But we learn that as we age our individual death gets larger, more prevalent and more terrifying until it looms over us in our deathbeds. We also learn once September befriends Death, that Death itself cannot sleep because it has nightmares about “all the things the dead wish they had done differently”. Pretty damn dark for children, but at least there’s an underlying moral of no regret hidden beneath the reminder of our own mortality.
-Amazing characters and setting, well shaped and well thought out
-Full of fun riddles and wordplay, very Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
-Combines old world fairy tale charm and modern conventions
-Continually warmed and simultaneously crushed me
-Nothing, like I said, this novel is perfection
Like most well beloved fairy tales such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, and The Wizard of Oz, Valente chooses to end her fairy tale in the typical was it real/wasn’t it fashion with a splash of modernity. “All stories must end so,” the narrator tells us, “With the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again”. In her penultimate paragraph, Valente hints at continued adventures, Persephone’s return from Hades, September’s fate, and in the process broke my heart.