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June 2007
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente, Bantam, 2006, $14.

Lisey's Story, by Stephen King, Scribner, 2006, $28.

Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay, Roc, 2007, $24.95.

IN THE Night Garden will inevitably draw comparisons to the Arabian Nights because of the structure of the book, which on the surface of things is fairly comparable. Like Scheherazade before her, Valente's nameless girl tells part of a story every night; unlike the wily heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, she is not facing death in the morning if she fails to interest her audience, who is a somewhat lonely, isolated boy. What instead?

Valente has chosen an exotic, storybook environment in which to situate her teller of tales; she is a young girl with kohl black eyes who is left alone to fend for herself in the sumptuous and obviously rich gardens outside of the palace proper.

As an infant, she was placed under an enchantment of words—literal words, written in fine, fine ink across both of her eyes. In the telling of the tales, she is unraveling the enchantment, although what will happen when the last tale is told is unclear. One of the many children in the Court itself finds her, and finds himself enchanted by her stories; he sneaks away at night to hear them, often bringing food, and in turn, she finds having a friend unexpectedly moving.

Every night, in the garden, she tells this boy a story, and, as in the Arabian Nights, the stories themselves become the narrative, one strand crossing another, one story beginning another, and that story beginning yet another. But the threads in the end wind themselves into a fuller picture, and the book is broken into two halves, each half, with all of its intricate imbedded structure, complete to a point.

Where the comparison in terms of structure is the obvious one, it's also a facile comparison, because Valente is doing work here that subverts its form, while at the same time staying true to the mythic elements that give the form its power. The women here are earthy, ugly, lonely, beautiful, and often isolated; the mothers are frequently evil, the stepmothers often good; the villains of one piece deserve pity when approached from a different teller's tale, and in some cases, the warranted actions of one set of story heroes affect another set, unknown to them, in the worst possible ways. The underlying myths of creation are elegant, and although they come stretched from whole, new cloth, they have an edge to them that makes them more real than tropes which are more familiar. And all of this is presented in a form that feels somehow antiquated.

I would never want to attempt structural pieces the way Valente has here—but it felt so seamless and simple while I was reading it that I probably didn't appreciate it fully until I started to write about it. I really, really enjoyed this book; it was a pleasure to read, from start to finish, and the end note of the volume—if there's one flaw, it would be that this is Volume One of Two—was unexpectedly moving. If anything here makes the book sound intimidating, forgive me; it's entertaining first, and thought provoking second.

*     *     *

As I've said before, I don't read horror. I don't actually like to be scared. I don't particularly like the sex/death metaphor that lies at the heart of so much horror, because in the end, it doesn't speak to me. I realize this is entirely a personal preference; I mean nothing at all against horror.

A fair question would then be: Why did you pick up a Stephen King novel? And the answer in this case would be: I like the way King writes people. In general, his people are quirky, if not downright crazy—but he likes them, and his characters are informed by his affection for them. And this one caught my eye because it was, in some ways, a love story. Or a loss story. Both of these things do speak to me.

Lisey is one of five sisters, and Lisey is also a widow—the widow of famous American writer, Scott Landon, who left behind a stack of possibly unfinished writing, a larger stack of the usual detritus that informs any life, and an even larger hole in the life of his wife of many years.

But he left behind a secret, as well—the secret of his childhood years, half-told, and the secret of the place he went to in those years. A place he once took Lisey, when they were having their first momentous discussion about their future together. A place that she's avoided thinking about in the intervening years, because she was always the stable half of their life together; the woman who could swing a stupid ceremonial shovel in the face of a would-be assassin to save her famous husband's life. The place has an improbable name—Boo'ya Moon—but given Scott's age when he first discovered he could go there, it's understandable.

Lisey is beginning the slog through her husband's life with the help of her older sister, Amanda ("help" in this case is a verb that is almost, but not quite, unlike the verb that we normally use). Amanda has a history of being a bit peculiar, and a history of being a lot peculiar, and Lisey's never quite certain what she's going to get. But Amanda's annoyance in this case produces forgotten glimpses of photographs, anchors to a past when there's no more future, and Lisey revisits the past, taking us with her. We see the defining moments of lives: we see Scott at his craziest, and at his most vulnerable; we see Lisey and Scott through the bitter year of life in Germany, when they were cut off from the community that they subconsciously relied on. There's very little of the romantic in these glimpses—but King's never been big on that, and there's still a sense of warmth that suffuses even the bitter memories: this is a couple who struggled, and grew, and pulled each other out of oblivion. Literally.

But Lisey's sisters, in the present, are there to remind us of how complicated any love—any long association—is. In particular, Amanda, kin to Scott in darker ways, serves as both an anchor and a crutch to Lisey when one of Scott's crazy fans begins to pay visits.

If there's one weakness in the book, for me, it's the advent of Crazy Stalker Guy. Because I was already invested in the characters and the relationships I cared about, I almost resented the wordage given to him, and I think the book would have been just as strong without his presence as a plot device.

People who dislike the King approach to writing about being a famous writer will probably be annoyed by this book because so much of the life of Lisey and Scott Landon was informed by what Scott did. There's nothing new in that, and I didn't find it offensive or irritating.

But I found Lisey and Scott, and Lisey and Amanda, engrossing—I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book, all quibbles aside.

*     *     *

Guy Gavriel Kay has spent so much of his writing life examining history and returning it to his readers, in fantasies designed to draw out and examine key themes, that this book seems like a departure: It's set in contemporary Provence, with contemporary characters, in particular the well-known, award-winning photographer Edward Marriner and his team of assistants: the terrifyingly well-organized Melanie, and the very bright and rather funny Steve and Greg. They have come together to capture some essential part of Provence's history for a new book.

Edward's son, Ned, is at the upper end of adolescence, and has come along for the ride, bringing with him cell phones, iPods, and a bit of attitude. His mother, Meghan, is away in the Sudan, taking her medical expertise to people who are far from able to afford it, and very much in need of it.

While scouting one of the more unusual buildings in Provence for possible shooting locations for his father, Ned has the good fortune to meet Kate, a girl his age—and he has the questionable fortune to meet a man who is a good deal older and a lot less friendly. Both of these people have parts to play, because while Ned is casually glancing at the accumulation of hundreds of years of history in the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, history of a type is looking back at him.

And it starts with a bald, lithe stranger, and a statue of the Queen of Sheba. The stranger, Phelan, because he slipped unseen past two chatty teenagers into the depths of the tunnels beneath the Cathedral, and the Queen of Sheba because when Ned sees her, he knows she's not the Queen of Sheba, tourist guides notwithstanding. Here is Kay's description of the statue, through Ned's eyes:

She had been made this way, barely carved into the stone, the features less sharply defined, meant to fade, to leave, like something lost from the beginning.
The paragraph is significant because, in many ways, it encapsulates my experience of reading Kay's work—that the sense of loss experienced when his world slips away, and his tale is told, will be profound, but the beauty of the experience is worth that loss, is perhaps more intense because it's coming.

There's a chattiness and a friendliness to this book that's immediately accessible (for instance, Ned does something very funny with ringtones), but as Kay introduces a second strange man into Ned's life—Cadell, a man in almost all ways different from the first—there is also a growing sense of old magic and old stories, both unfinished.

Phelan and Cadell are hunting in the depths of history for sight of Ysabel, the woman they both love, and have loved, for many lifetimes. To both of them, Ned isn't and shouldn't be part of the story—but when Ned calls Greg for an emergency ride, and Melanie shows up instead, all of the expedition finds itself thrown into the chaos of a love triangle that has been reborn, time and again, starting and ending in reunion and in loss.

Guy Gavriel Kay has always played along the edges of memory, elegy, and romantic love. Here, in contemporary Provence, the land remembers what happened; the light remembers. The loss of obvious fantasy tropes doesn't dim the play of people who are in no way contemporary. History isn't hidden in the pages of almost mythic fantasy, and it certainly isn't absent—it's everywhere Ned walks.

But if there is power in old stories—and there always is—there is power in new stories, as well. In Ned, who slowly works his way toward a dim understanding of what Phelan and Cadell face, crossing their paths time and again in his fumbling attempts to save Melanie before she's lost to our world, and in the process, providing closure.

Guy Gavriel Kay's books always move me to tears. This novel is no exception, and I think readers who had some difficulty with The Last Light of the Sun will be happier with Ysabel.

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