‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente

‘The Girl Who…’ is a book some people will love and others will find unreadable.  It is a modern fairytale with a distinctive, arch style that will annoy some readers, but enthral many others.  The verve with which Valente writes gives an impression of fresh originality, but this is a book steeped in storytelling tradition, and Valente’s novel shouts out its references and sources of inspiration.

In the tradition of Narnia and Wonderland, the central character, September, enters Fairyland through a portal from the real world.  Like Dorothy, September meets curious and defective characters to journey with.  Shoes pay a pivotal role in the plot too, and there is a much talk of finding a way home.  Like all good fairytales there is a powerful amoral villain and there are an abundance of moral lessons to be learned.  The clever wordplay channels Lewis Carroll and the novel contains the finest characterisation of Death since Pratchett.  These are Giant’s boots to fill, and Valente is mostly successful.

I did not completely love this book.  Sometimes its fey whimsy became too much.  The tale is told by an all-too-knowing narrator, who at times, got on my nerves.   After  a short reading break however, I would come back to the book, ready to appreciate its many qualities.  Like all fairytales the central story is slight.  What impressed me was the depth of Valente’s imagination.  Some of the ideas in ‘…Her Own Making’ may be older than time, but Valente has freshened them up and given them a new lease of life.  Like the best authors of fairytales, Valente uses her creation’s otherworldliness to examine facets of our real-life existence.  Time and again, I was surprised by a perceptive observation, simply delivered.  Death, books and friendships; Valente skewers these and many other aspects of life, with just a few short paragraphs of elegant prose.  The conclusion of the novel is particularly poignant, tying together a novel, which at times feels like it had been created using an ideas scattergun.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy every page of ‘Circumnavigated’, Valente’s style continually reminded of one of my favourite children’s authors, and expert curator of fairytales, Joan Aiken (author of the excellent Necklace of Raindrops).  For me, there can be no higher praise than that.  If fairytales and whimsy aren’t your thing, this book probably won’t convert you, but if you have the slightest leaning towards the fey, then you will find much to enjoy.  The book is left open for a sequel, and whilst I wouldn’t sit down and read it tomorrow, in a few months time, I would definitely come back for more.

Many thanks to Sam at Corsair for sending me a review copy of this book.

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