This beautifully produced unusual picture book is a dark mysterious otherworldly fairy tale following in the footsteps of the Grimm Brothers. First published in Europe in 2014 with an Italian author and renowned award-winning Belgian illustrator it has taken a while to get to British readers but with an English translator, here it is. Various reviewers have implied that the reason for the delay is the unsettling content at its heart; however, I think it sits neatly alongside the works of Carroll or Dahl.
Valentina is the ten-year-old Emperor’s daughter and we are immediately told she is “a nightmare”; she is spoilt, unhappy, owns 390 pairs of shoes, 812 hats and 50 snakeskin belts but her most beloved belongings are the birds and the 101 very large birdcages that they inhabit. Valentina has a castle brimming with servants who she dispatches across the globe to find and retrieve rare and exotic birds for her to put into the cages. However, Valentina often invents these unusual birds and so when the servants return with the closest specimen they can find to her unrealistic demands she keeps the birds but beheads the servants. Like Carroll’s Queen of Hearts her bloodthirst knows no abounds and skulls are scattered around the castle and its grounds. She even sits on piles of them as she instructs her remaining terrified staff and just as “off with their heads” is heard all around Wonderland “CHOP” echoes around Valentina’s world.
One night Valentina dreams of a talking bird who “was such good company … saying such sweet things, and saying them only to her” that she orders the servants to find it for her to place inside her most special birdcage, the golden one that her father had given to her for her birthday. Valentina is depicted as being a sullen, lonely, miserable child and her desperation for this imaginary bird amplifies this. She needs somebody to talk to and it is no coincidence that the bird of her dreams is remarkably similar to the soft toy she is seen holding. As the months and seasons go by she beheads an average of 100 servants a month but nobody can find a true talking bird, just birds that pale in comparison due to their ability to just repeat the same old things.
Her unhindered murderous frustration leads to “the palace [becoming] the colour of blood” hence the book’s subtitle and results in her selling her possessions including her birds and the castle becoming a ruin. That is until one day, an unknown servant boy approaches her saying he can resolve her seemingly impossible quest but only if she promises to not chop anybody’s head off again and be patient. Valentina unhappily agrees and after waiting eleven months she is presented with an egg. She waits so long for the egg to hatch that her hair grows from a scruffy bob into very long wild tendrils that stretch across the floor like the branches and roots of the trees surrounding her.
Then quite abruptly, so much so that I was jolted out of Valentina’s world, there is a sudden gear change. The final two pages are just writing, the longest block of words within the book, and there are no images at all. Additionally, the narrator is talking directly to the reader, saying that the story is a true one but never has it had the same ending each time it is told and gives three different versions they have heard. Each one implies Valentina never got her talking bird but nothing else. On one hand I felt this ending was a shame as it sort of felt like the author wasn’t quite sure how to resolve the story but on the other hand I felt that it fits within the fairy tale style and builds on the sense of uncertainty garnered throughout. It also opens up class discussions on who the narrator is, how true is the story, and what did happen to Valentina.
There is so much to talk about regarding this large size picture book, that it is impossible to mention everything here. I have so many notes jotted down of things that occurred to me that this review could easily be double the length it is!
However, the illustrations must be mentioned for their exquisite vibrancy and rich detail, you can get lost in them quite easily, especially as there are numerous pages that are just Cneut’s work. This is one reason why I felt the sudden change in direction at the end so sharply. The images of the birds reminded me of historical ornithological illustrations and those in the palace have an absurdity and creepiness about them that you can’t help but be absorbed by them. There is also a resemblance to John Tenniel with the uncanny nature of Cneut’s style.
This is not so much a cautionary fairy tale with a nice moral but I think one that purposely puts you on edge and unbalances you by transporting you into an enigmatic world with a petulant complicated lonely child at its centre. As cautioned by those reviewers I mentioned earlier, the macabre nature of the story may need to be considered but this is a brilliant book for sophisticated readers who want a challenge or as a class read and a perfect contemporary story to study alongside more traditional ones in the fairy tale canon.
Natalie McChrystal Plimmer