Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.
Fairyland does not disappoint.
In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.
Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the mischievous Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.
But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.
Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.