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

Fairyland 1Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Catherynne M. Valente
Fairyland #1
10 May 2011
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: purchased new
Rating: 7/10

Twelve-year-old September is tired of her life in her parents’ house, so when the Green Wind alights at her window and offers to take her to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes, she accepts immediately.

From the start, September finds that Fairyland is nothing like what she could even have begun to expect. She nearly drowns when she arrives, and then has to choose between one of four unappealing paths – to lose her way, her life, her mind or her heart. Losing her way means going back the way she came. She doesn’t want to lose her life or her mind, so she choose to lose her heart, since “[a]ll children are heartless” (5) anyway, as hearts are heavy and it takes a long time to grow one.

On her journey, September agrees to retrieve a witch’s spoon from the evil Marquess who rules the land. The Marquess has introduced all sorts of rules and bureaucracy in an attempt to tame the world and make it more hospitable to children. She has even forbidden the fairy folk from flying, and had their wings strapped down with chains. She insists that fairy folk are too mischievous and dangerous by nature so

I fixed all that, September. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn’t even know what a ledger was? To earn their submission, even to the point of having their wings locked down? But I did it. I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you and trying to steal your soul away. I do you didn’t think you had charmed them all with you sparkling personality, child. (126)

The Marquess blackmails September into retrieving a magical sword in the midst of a periods forest. Luckily, September has friends to accompany her. She met a dragon-like creature called a Wyvern, who believes his father was a library.  His name is A-through-L, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of any subject beginning with the letters A through L. September also earns the devotion of a tattooed, blue-skinned boy named Saturday who will grant you a wish if you wrestle him nearly to death.

Obviously, this is not your usual fairytale or a typical children’s fantasy, even though it has all the magic and wonder of one. But it’s the exactly the kind of thing I love and look for in a Valente novel. Nevertheless, I got off to a bad start. While I fell in love with Valente’s writing in works like The Habitation of the Blessed (2010) and Silently and Very Fast (2011) it has a very childish quality here that I immediately disliked. The abundance of detail that I normally find so enchanting about her style, here seemed excessive and irritating.

I’m not so easily dissuaded though, and I kept reading hoping I’d just get used the style, or that the book would hook me once the plot was in full swing. And, happily, the book kept growing on me until, by the end, I was completely and utterly enchanted by it.

Valente has written a lush fairytale full of strange creatures and places. It’s strongly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland with a nod to Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Valente’s stories often have a metafictional aspect to them, and there are quite a few comments about stories in general and this one in particular. September embarks on her adventure having read stories where girls are whisked away to other worlds, and she worries that she’s not ill-tempered, smart, brave or talented enough for this journey. She understands what’s expected of her too, because “What is a child brought to Fairyland for if not to thwart wicked rulers?” (139).

This is so much more than an echo of the works that inspired Valente though. Like the best rewritten fairytales, she builds on them in interesting ways. Unlike Alice in Wonderland for example, the novel considers why September – and other children – might want to escape to Fairyland for reasons other than simple curiosity, and despite the many dangers. At first it seems like September is just bored and irritable, looking to do something other than wash teacups. But she’s also unhappy at home – her “father ran away with the army” (19) and her mother is  always working, no doubt struggling to make ends meet.

By spending time away from her mother however, September is given the chance to appreciate the practical things her mother – an engine mechanic – has taught her.

she was her mother’s daughter, always and forever, and felt sure whatever she set her hands to would work. Once, they had spent a whole afternoon fixing Mr Albert’s broken-up Model A so that September would not have to walk every day to school, which was several miles away. September would have been happy to watch her mother shoulder-deep in engine grease, but her mother wasn’t like that. She made September learn very well how a clutch worked, what to tighten, what to bend, and in the end, September had been so tired, but the car hummed and coughed just like a car ought to. That was what September liked best, now that her mother was not about and she had the freedom to think about her from time to time – to learn things, and her mother knew a great number of them. She never said anything was too hard or too dirty and had never once told September that she would understand when she was older. (158)

September’s skills, ingenuity and acquaintance with hard work are essential as she frequently encounters demanding obstacles and great danger. She understands that this is necessary:

There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will all be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or why else bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them. (49)

And she does bleed, many times. Her body is changed in ways that are far more scary than simply shrinking or growing as Alice did. One of the creepiest but most memorable moments is when she encounters her own Death, who appears to her as a small creature. Rather than run away, September cradles her Death in her arms and sings it to sleep.

Another way in which September differs greatly from Alice is that her actions and adventures have real consequences for herself and others. It’s not just a dream, and after a while you sense the gravity of what’s going on. Even though September is like Alice in that she goes from one bizarre encounter to another she always plays an active role and what she says and does matters to other people and the plot. She can’t just leave one thing behind and completely forget about it as she moves on to the next.

It was the gravity of this story that ultimately won me over. I think it was about midway through the novel, when September has to deal with something particularly threatening and scary, that I really started to enjoy the story. It’s still a children’s tale, but not a patronising one. September might be in a fantasy world, it very real to her and her friends, as is the quest she embarks on. She has to make sacrifices, face up to uncomfortable realities, and make choices that I would never have to want to make myself. The were several occasions where this book had me on the verge of tears.

It’s not all dark and desperate though; the novel is full of the delights you’d expect in a fairy world and more – whimsical customs, magical baths, strange mouthwatering food, pookas, spriggans, live bicycles who run (or rather, cycle) in herds, and a key who races after September because it knows she will need it. It’s lovely read for people who love modern, elaborate fairytales and stories that can be both grave and delightful. I recommend it.

2 thoughts on “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

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