If this is the kind of book you like, you’ll like this book. That is, if, as a child, you sat for hours with The Blue Fairy Book, or Hans Christian Andersen, or 1,001 Arabian Nights, you will very much enjoy In the Night Garden. It has the kind of rich, eerie, thickly woven atmosphere you can almost smell, as if you’ve found a quiet, abandoned back corner of an old library where there’s just enough light for you to see the dust whirl silently away from the shelf as you pull out a fat, musty volume.
The titular orphan is a girl whose eyelids are thickly tattooed all around with tales that she must tell in order to lift a curse laid on her. She tells these tales to a young prince, who sneaks out of his castle to meet her. Though the book is split in half between the two tales the girl tells, within these two stories are tales within tales of the characters we meet. They are at once endlessly inventive and echoes of every story you’ve ever heard or read. They are fairy tales not intended for children. As such, they are allowed to realize more overtly the darkness inherent to the original versions of stories we’ve heard in various Disney-fied forms. Violence and sex are not merely hinted at here.
This is one instance in which ornate prose works perfectly, and Valente embroiders with a heavy hand. Her lushly-phrased descriptions and repeated, refrain-like similes call to mind the formality that characterizes the oral tradition and makes it possible for storytellers to remember and pass on long tales. In this way, I forgot I was reading a book instead of sitting and listening to the orphan girl, or the runaway prince, or the half-princess, half-monster, or the evil wizard, all of whom have tales, whether they’re villains or heroes. The stories weave in and out of each other, and I caught glimpses of characters who had been children in earlier stories grown up in later ones, or of characters who had been secondary in earlier stories, but were now returning in tales of their own.
Impressively, even when I was nested five or six tellers deep into a tale, I rarely felt lost, because the tales come back into the main story the same way they went out of it: speaker by speaker. I did wish at times that the main story, that of the orphan girl and the prince, was revisited more frequently, because the short chapters about these characters every fifty pages or so did little to advance their plotline. However, enough of a foundation was laid to make me interested in reading the book’s sequel, In the Cities of Coin and Spice. And I suppose it is important for the orphan girl to retain some degree of mystery, because if her curse is lifted, the stories end!
In the Night Garden, despite the slim connections between its stories, is too disjointed to sustain and build up the kind of emotional pitch that leaves a deep impression. But for the beautiful and impressive variety of its tales, its evocative language, and its meticulous narrative technique, I admired and enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading its sequel.