Sunday, 14 November 2010

Kate Bernheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Yesterday's Indian Express carried a short review of Kate Bernheimer's anthology of fairy tales. A 500 word review was never going to be enough to discuss a collection of 40 stories (many of which could do with posts to themselves) and I'm very tempted to do a longer version sometime this week that discusses some of the individual stories in depth and goes into some of the wider themes that I was forced to leave out. For now, here's the short version.

**********************************************

There is a sense in which all fairytales are retellings. The Brothers Grimm collected their tales from a long tradition of oral storytelling. Charles Perrault adapted his for the drawing rooms of 17th Century France. My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me opens with an Angela Carter quote: “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter’s own 1979 work, The Bloody Chamber, was a seminal act of fairytale retelling. Bernheimer’s collection of forty fairytales by various writers is dedicated to Carter, and her shadow looms large over many of the stories.

Many stories in this collection are entirely original works that use fairytale tropes. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” takes the good-sister/bad-sister theme that runs through many fairy tales, but adds aliens, artificial tan and police reports. Kelly Link’s “Catskin” has links to Rapunzel and Puss-in-Boots but is an entirely original piece.

Writers like Brian Evenson, Susan Shuh-Lien Bynum, Hiromi Ito and Joyce Carol Oates base their pieces on established stories. Evenson’s “Dapplegrim”, based on a Norwegian folktale, is dark, obsessive and full of bloodshed. Ito’s “I Am Anjuhimeko” is powerful and epic in scope. Oates and Bynum tackle stories previously riffed off by Carter but take them in entirely different directions. Oates’ version of the Bluebeard myth is clever and surprising, while Bynum’s “The Erlking”, about a mother's anxiety over her child's education, was one of the highlights of the anthology for me.

The Grimm brothers’ “The Six Swans” forms the starting point for some of the best pieces. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People” in particular is a gorgeous, brutal story about yearning and incompleteness. Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” is, hands down, the best thing in the book, partly story, partly a loosely connected set of observations about the fairytale. Here, for example, are the Things You Learn From Reading:
Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out.

To retell a story inevitably leads to thinking about how narratives work, and many of the pieces in this collection are, like Jackson’s, stories about stories. Kim Addonizio’s “Ever After” has seven dwarves reading “Snow White” as a religious text. Karen Brennan’s “The Snow Queen” and Francine Prose’s “Hansel and Gretel” both have their narrators thinking through their own relationships with fairy tales. Notes from the authors explain the genesis of each story and provide further insight into the mechanics of these narratives.

My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me is an impressive anthology, featuring some of the most exciting writers in the world at the moment. There are some real treasures in this collection, with all the menace and magic of the traditional fairy tale.

**********************************************


No comments: