The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011)The problem with a blurb from Neil Gaiman on a cover is that, invoking Gaiman, it inevitably diminishes the book by comparison.  This is not the book’s fault.  Gaiman is one of our most gifted contemporary writers.  Catherynne M. Valente may not be, but I wouldn’t even be thinking about the comparison if Gaiman’s endorsement were absent from the cover. Her The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is clever, well-plotted, engaging, and inventive.  It’s not Gaiman, but it is good.

Better points of comparison are L. Frank Baum and J.M. Barrie.  As Barrie does in Peter and Wendy, Valente several times calls children “heartless,” and deploys a narrative voice that shifts between third person, second person, and first person — though it stays mostly in third. As Barrie’s narrator does, Valente’s invokes that heartlessness to consider the child’s desire to abandon home for fairyland: “September did not even wave good-bye. One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless.”  That said, and again following Barrie’s example, Valente does invite us to judge her protagonist.  As many parents are, these narrators are torn between granting the child her freedom and keeping her close by.

Instead of being transported from Kansas via tornado, 12-year-old September gets whisked away from Nebraska by the Leopard of Little Breezes.  Also bringing to mind the Oz books, Valente’s fantastic characters combine nature and machinery in ways that recall Baum’s. There’s Lye, a golem made of soap; Gleam, a lamp that speaks through messages on its shade; and herds of velocipedes (free-range bicycles). Valente also seems to have taken seriously Baum’s goal (in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) to strive for a “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”  Valente’s tone suggests that the “good” characters will not come to any harm.  That said, and as is also true of Baum, by about halfway through the book, much that threatens the heroine seems to revoke the promise of a nightmare-free story.  As the narrator observes, “I have tried to be a generous narrator and care for my girl as best I can. I cannot help that readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.”

In discussing a few of the many works that likely inspired The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, I do not mean here to deride the book as “derivative.”  All art derives from other art.  What makes something feel original is the way in which it combines all that inspired it.  Neil Gaiman’s books do this work seamlessly. Transformed by his imagination, his influences feel organic.  They don’t feel like influences at all.  To read a Gaiman novel is to get caught up in his world — you may catch allusions to Norse mythology, or Victorian writer Lucy Clifford, but the feeling is something fashioned out of whole cloth.

This is not entirely the case with Valente, though the garrulous narrator may be partially the cause.  Fond of shifting out of third person and offering editorial comments, the narrative voice prevents readers from becoming too absorbed in the story.  Pushing its audience way from such absorption, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making instead gives them space to think about the narrative, the allusions, the books that seem to be Valente’s favorites.  As fans of Lemony Snicket know, such a narrator can also be fun to spend time with.  He (or she) treats the reader like a confidante, suggesting an intimate, even privileged, relationship with the person holding the book.  Valente’s narrator is not only good company; she (or he) is wise, witty, and unpredictable.  As she (he?) admits late in the novel, “I am a sly and wicked narrator. If there is a secret to be plumbed for your benefit, Dear Reader, I shall strap on a head-lamp and a pick-ax and have at it.”

In this review, I’ve deliberately avoided “secrets”: narrative is one of the many pleasures of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairlyand in a Ship of Her Own Making.  So, you’ll find no spoilers here.  Featuring a female lead who is both thoughtful and brave, the book is a fantasy that offers a meditation on fantasy’s tropes.  As Dumbledore does in the Harry Potter series, this novel too dismisses the idea that its hero is a “chosen one.”  Late in the book, one of September’s allies remarks, “You are not the chosen one, September.  Fairyland did not choose you — you chose yourself.”

Should you choose to read Valente’s novel, you’ll find it a smart, metafictive tale, with plenty of adventure, humor, and insight.  Neil Gaiman calls it “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”  He’s right.

5 Comments »

  1. Monica Edinger Said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 4:29 am

    Oh, I’m so glad you weighed in on this one. I’ve wanted to write about it too, but wanted to reread it before doing so. (Aha — just figured out that I’ll take the ARC with me tomorrow on my journey to Sierra Leone — been trying to figure what I’d feel like reading. I’ve got Wolf Hall too.)

    I had a long talk with the author at ALA and plan to interview her on the blogs as I think some of her thinking behind the book is fascinating. She is, as you note, well versed in the books behind hers. One thing that she helped me with is that so many people have said it is like Alice and I wasn’t seeing that until she noted that the Alice she loved was Looking-Glass and then it made sense to me.

    The more I think about the book the more taken I am with it.

  2. jules Said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    That is an excellent review.

    Re what Monica said, I’ve got questions out to the author now that I want to post at both Kirkus (abbreviated) and 7-Imp (full interview). (She’s super swamped now, but I hope she gets to them eventually.) Two friends who adored the book helped me compose these questions, and I like what they ask, in particular. Monica, you and Phil may find it interesting.

    That said, I would LOVE to read one of your interviews with her, Monica, and hear more about your discussion with her.

    I enjoyed the book and also enjoy reading *about* it, since it tends to be rather polarizing. I find it fascinating just to read the reviews.

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    Thank you both! I wonder if the “polarizing” response (I haven’t read any reviews) stems from readers having different expectations of the book — as noted above, if you’re expecting something like Gaiman, you’ll be disappointed. Initially, I was. But, then I pushed the Gaiman endorsement aside and tried to read the book on its own terms, realizing that Baum, Barrie, and Carroll make for better points of comparison.

    If I’d discussed a third influence, it certainly would have been the Alice books. There’s a Carrollian punning, and an interest in literalizing abstraction. There are, for instance, the sibling “halves” of Neither/Nor and Not/Nor. They speak in fragments unless together. One could play a diverting game of “spot the influence!” with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Baum! Carroll! Barrie! Lewis! Juster!

  4. Sam bloom Said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    As someone who gave up on this one after about 75 pages, I can weigh in by saying that Gaiman’s blurb did not play a role for me. I’m not averse to wordy narrators, nor do I really have a problem with narrators editorializing. I like fantasy of all kinds. The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books, and at first I was really taken with the ways in which Girl… reminded me (in a good way) of Juster’s writing. But for some reason, once September is whisked away from her home, I found myself slowly… losing… interest… Maybe this was because, as you said, Philip, “the narrative voice prevents readers from becoming too absorbed in the story.” I don’t know, the point is that I eventually stopped wanting to read the book. I’m sorry for this, because there are many people (whose opinions I respect greatly) who dug it.

  5. Richard Flynn Said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    Thanks for reminding me I wanted to read this book, Phil. I tried to buy it in NC when I was visiting mys sister and we went to one of those vanishing species, an independent bookstore, but they had sold their only copy.

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