The various eerie and whimsical tales included in this book cover a wide range of themes primarily centred around life in Paris during the 18th century. In particular, one thing is made clear to the reader regarding the chapters’ literary styles and use of flowery vocabulary; these tales are clearly designed to be read by candlelight to a listening audience as implied by the collection’s title. For example, when discussing the song about Marjolaine, in which she is whisked away upside-down by a tempest, the author remarks that she reminds him of the ‘beautiful, robust Norman women’ his grandmother used to mention. Without an adult reader to explain such terms a lot of the vocabulary employed in this book will likely go over the heads of young readers. Also, the distinctly French theme of settings and characters may not be as easily related to by audiences here in the UK or abroad. This came across as most striking when mention was made of ‘houses in the style of Louis XIII’ in describing the architecture. Along with advanced historical terminology there is also a fair amount of fantastical language employed in dealing with beings such as fairies or mean-spirited mice. However, despite the somewhat tricky language for young readers the stories themselves are intriguing.
The characters are often from aristocratic backgrounds and are shown in morbid or dire circumstances. One of the most memorable tales involves a Queen Maritorne appearing as an apparition to a young boy Wilhem; their interaction is described in a lot of detail and conveys his sense of dread quite well. There are also several elements of fantasy included throughout the stories, ranging from fairies to living tapestries. Altogether these historical and fictional elements mix well and end up developing into interesting scenarios. The narrative is generally focused on portraying characters themselves in detail rather than the surrounding environment. When read aloud as intended young readers will certainly find the tales amusing with a balanced level of spookiness for ages 5 through 10. This is one to save for a windy Halloween evening when the kids are in need of some ghost stories.
In order to break up the various chapters of this collection the author Jean Lorrain intersperses brief remarks about one Norine telling these stories to the author and his cousins in the linen rooms of the old spinsters’ accommodations at the time. This adds a personal touch to the stories themselves. Patricia Worth has also done an excellent job in translating the original French for English-speaking audiences; she has maintained an appropriate level of the eloquent vocabulary while also making it accessible. The stories are further supported by black and white silhouette-style art by Erin-Claire Barrow. Her illustrations are minimalist by design and supplement the stories well in their refined style (this book largely focuses on the French aristocracy after all). While this book would likely prove too difficult for young readers to go through by themselves it could definitely be narrated aloud to them with success. Older children between the ages of perhaps 5 through 10 would fare better with the language, but in either case having an adult to develop character voices and guide them through is recommended.
-A wide range of topics covered across the chapters.
-Striking artwork from Erin-Claire Barrow.
-Great use of imagery and conveying the environment to readers.
-Well suited to oral storytelling traditions (possible shadow puppetry?).
-Portrayal of French life and its cultural exposure for foreign audiences.
Areas for Improvement:
-Greater explanation of certain vocabulary for younger readers.
-Less focus on the interludes involving Norine and the author’s own reflections on the tales.
-Some of the chapters feel a bit abrupt and under-developed in contrast to others.
-Inclusion of other songs along the lines of ‘Marjolaine’ for improved stylistic balance.
Rating: 7/10 (adult) 6/10 (children 5+)