I’ve had a hit and miss record with Valente over the last few years. The novel Palimpsest did absolutely nothing for me – I found it impossible to get into and the premise didn’t interest me that much either. I could, though, appreciate the beauty of her language, which made it perhaps more frustrating not to enjoy it as a piece of writing. I’ve liked her short stories more, although again not all of them – there have been a few which frustrated me, a couple because I think they were trying too hard and a couple of others because I just didn’t GET what she was trying to do.
And then there’s this collection.
I signed up for the Omikuji Project recently, because I found out about it when Valente was considering shutting it down for having too few subscribers. The deal is, you pay a certain amount and you get a short story – written just for the subscribers – every month, on beautiful paper with an envelope sealed with wax (apparently; haven’t got my first one yet). This collection is the first two years’ worth of those stories, made available via Lulu, and I figured I would buy it to have nearly the full set.
Many of these stories are riffs on fairy stories, which can be a dangerous thing to approach, but I don’t think Valente hits a bum note with any of them.
I would normally just talk about my favourites in a collection, but I feel like I want to mention every single one of them… so the TL; DR version is just: it’s beautiful. Well worth getting from Lulu.
“The Glass Gear” is a delightful, wistful and bittersweet spin on Cinderella, while the three parts of “A Hole to China” are about a child who attempts to dig just that, and what she discovers at the centre of the earth (hint: not what you were expecting. Whatever you were expecting, not that). “The Kunstkammer of Dr Ampersand” is a travel guide explaining a curio cabinet and OH I WANT that novel! Love triangles, heart-of-darkness experiences… it would be poignant and beautiful, like the cabinet. “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps” takes the idea of planetary spheres of influence in intriguing directions, while “The Pine Witch Counts her Knuckle Bones” takes the idea of natural witchcraft and makes it… greener. Valente gets vicious on Chaucer and Boccaccio with “The Legend of Good Women,” and although I’ve not read all of either of the male-authored accounts I know exactly what she is stabbing at here, and she does it well. “Mullein” is one of the most poignant of the collection, a rather heart-breaking little story about the lengths someone might go to for love, and the reader is definitely left wondering whether it’s worth it or not (although I don’t think the characters are). “That Which lets the Light In” is probably my least favourite, perhaps because I am not as familiar with the Russian stories that she is playing with. A story, or set of stories, I am more familiar with feature in ” A Postcard from the End of the World,” which combines Norse and Greek myths into a homely little story about apples (kind of), and “How to raise a Minotaur” sees your Cretan labyrinth, picks it apart, and puts it back together again with added nuance, contemporaneity and a little bit more hope. “The Economy of Clouds” reverses the traditional perspective of Jack and the Beanstalk; “The Still” is a slightly creepy story about girls and plums. I adored “The Wedding” – the idea of the mismatched couple, or mismatched families, is a banal staple of romantic comedies but this – a human and a rime giant? Delightful. “Reading Borges in Buenos Aires” reminded me that I have been meaning to read more Borges – I’ve only read one collection, and that many years ago – and it also connected in a weird way to The Dervish House, because of its ideas of cities as books with social geography that can be read. “The Folklore of Sleep” didn’t work particularly for me, although I appreciated what she was doing both with the idea of sleep as fundamental but more deeply with the idea of what makes individuals and how others react to that. I think the only clearly SF story in the collection is “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Golden Moon,” and it would make a wonderful novel too: children and an abandoned lunar colony, where they’re all given lunar names and don’t understand the Earth. Two of the stories in the collection are actually first chapters of novels finished over this period, from Deathless and The Habitation of the Blessed. As a result of reading them here, I must read the former and will be avoiding the latter studiously (which I already guessed based on their blurbs). I only understood the title of “The Opposite of Mary” as I was looking back over it today, and that because last week at church the sermon was about Mary’s response to the annunciation. In this story, there is no announcement of imminent divine arrival, but rather just a divine presence… in the shed, with the tools. And the human interaction is humanly motivated. It’s quite an interesting take, for me, on the idea of such interactions. Valente apparently wrote “Blue with those Tears” almost as a challenge to herself because she loathes other stories of Atlanteans so much – and in typical Valente fashion she cannot leave the idea unproblematised. “The Consultant” was inspired by a friend suggesting the need for a fairy tale consultant, and showcases Valente’s depth of knowledge about the subject. And finally, “Grandmother Euphrosyne” is a wonderful, slightly cranky story – just like a grandmother – that brings in Greek myth and family relationships in a beautiful, beautiful way.
The last thing to say about this collection is that aside from the glorious prose, there are pictures to go with every story – which I believe are largely from the community of Omikuji recipients (can’t wait to join them!), and also the beginning of the letters that Valente sends with each story, which contribute to the larger meta-narrative. This is a really special set of stories.