Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a book of poetry and short stories that feature women as the prime characters. The topics encompass new takes on familiar fairytales and myths, material dealing with modern-day situations, in addition to new stories set in that nebulous, rather European “land of long, long ago.”
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that this book’s myriad tales focused on women. And not just the young and gorgeous women who normally play starring roles in fantasy either. There were old women (who were not evil witches, thank you dear author!), young women, women of childbearing age (with stretch-marks, even!), middle-aged women, and every other woman in between. I also liked the imagery that she uses, especially in her poems. One of my favorite lines in the book is from the poem “Glass, Blood and Ash”:
I do not want to sit on that broad-backed horse, or smell his skin, grassy and hot as boiled husks, inside a shirt ropy with gold tassels and primogeniture.
Her wonderfully expressive language: metaphors, similes, and all the other tricks and strategems that are commonly used to grab the reader’s attention and keep it, are beautifully deployed; and conjure up the scenes before my mind’s eye in HDTV quality colour.
As a person who usually likes happy endings, the overall mood of the book struck me as tragic and melancholic. Familiar fairy tales have endings that are much darker–and probably more true to their earlier form–than I am accustomed to. The more disturbing aspects of the relationship between Aphrodite and Sita and their husbands are brought to the front and center, and the poem “How Comes This Blood Upon This Key” presents a view of marriage from the view of the wife that is downright depressing. This is not to say that there were no stories of triumph and happily ever after sprinkled throughout the book, however. My favorite among these is the “The Last Story of Urn”. This story features an old woman who had “married many a dragon and slayed many a prince” and who went out for adventure when her husbands had died and her children had grown. I liked it because, instead of living quietly at home and waiting for death at the end of her life, she stepped and went in search of new adventure. I want to be her when I grow old.
In the final analysis, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone who likes beautiful language, shimmering imagery and who wants to luxuriate in the abundance of female heroes that the tales offer. It will change your perspective. Its innovative wording will tweak your imagination. Read it slowly and savor its flavour.