I have always had a soft spot for fairy tales re-told, re-imagined, re-made. I have an unfashionable love for what I consider classic Disney – the hazy unreality of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Cinderella. The fuzzy happiness of these meant that when the Brothers Grimm came to me, it was a shattering of what I had thought to be canon. I hated the mutilation of the stepsisters’ feet in Cinderella, the heartbreak and sacrifice of the Little Mermaid dancing on knives, only to be discarded on the prince’s wedding night, the bloody chamber of Bluebeard. The cruel arbitrariness of Grimm led to the mercilessness of Oscar Wilde, where happy endings existed, but not in this world – you had to be content with a higher meaning, a higher power. The little prince and his bird, cast into ashes –
And then my dad brought back a book of fairy tales for feminists – I can’t remember exactly what it was called, and can’t find it now, but I remember giggling through it. I thought at first it might have been this Barbara Walker one, but I suspect it may have been this one instead. (Possibly it was neither.) In any case, I loved it, and realizing that fairy tale adaptations could be humorous instead of, you know, bloody, maimed versions of my favourite stories, was well-prepared for William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
I LOVED this book, and there was a point in my life where I had basically memorized the first chapter. The book was so good that I was always amazed that people seemed to like the movie better. I don’t remember it at all now, but I do remember loving it how it gently poked fun at fairy tales while also being completely invested in the Happy Ending.
All this to say – Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is a mix of all of the most intense feelings I had about fairy tales when I was younger. It’s a retelling of an old Charles Perrault tale called Donkeyskin, apparently. (TV Tropes calls it a “Grimmification” of Perrault.) A king, married to the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, is heartbroken when she dies after making him promise that he will never marry again unless it’s to someone as beautiful as she is. A few years later, he realizes that his only daughter is actually pretty gorgeous. DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN (It’s awful. Wth.)
Painful – yes, it’s painful. Rape, and incest, and miscarriage and violence and trauma. Incredibly painful to read. For a fairy tale retelling, it’s tremendously accurate and brutal about the realities of trauma, and the awakening of consciousness, and how disempowered we are when we cannot put name to things.
There are quiet stretches of wonder, too – the healing powers of time, of nature, of memory. An animal sidekick, a prince who is warm and human and good. A satisfyingly vengeful ending (could have been more vengeful), with enough promise for the future to make it, if not Happily Ever After, still a happy ending, for me. But man, was it painful to get there.
7 books so far this month, with 10 days left to go. Can I hit 5 books in that time? We’ll see. In the meantime, two books of note other than Deerskin:
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen ( My third or fourth graphic novel for the year? It reminded me a little of Joss Whedon – revisionist superhero history, brutally ripping away the heroes from their airbrushed capes, asking the mundane (and wry) questions about what kind of people would really choose to wear tights and capes. No one is likeable in this comic – every friend I spoke to about it said, “They’re grey!” – but they’re very particular shades of grey. I often wonder – greyness is often associated with the complexity of human behaviour and thus, realism, but goodness is real too! Why does the postmodern mind persist in valorizing badness and immorality as part of the human condition, but not goodness, just everyday cheerful goodness and aspirations to be better? TL:DR It was hard to like anyone in this comic.)
- Emma Donoghue The Wonder (Set in mid 19th century Ireland, Lib, a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale, is set the task of observing 11-year old Anna O’Donnell, who is whispered to have survived without food for 4 months. Miracle or hoax? Riveting, fast-paced, I was scrambling to get through this on the flight home, wanting to find out. Donoghue is probably most familiar to most for Room.)
Onwards through the tome that is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness!