Fairy tales occupy an important part of our cultural psyche, woven into our collective memories and literary traditions. Often the first stories which are told to us in childhood, it is easy to forget their violent and visceral brutality in the rosy glow of nostalgia. Not so the tales in this collection. Children are abandoned to the savagery of the forest, babies are ripped from the breasts of their mothers, women are first deified and then discarded by men.
Editor Teika Bellamy’s eclectic and celebratory anthology of short stories and re-tellings perfectly captures the dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil, familiarity and fear, which can be found in even the most whimsical of fairy tales. They also effortlessly transverse time and space. Stories about the discovery of a fairy frozen in the icy window of a London tower-block or the disturbing goings-on in a contaminated forest outside Chernobyl sit side-by-side with the folkloric once-upon-a-time universe of castles, kings and queens.
In fact, some of the most effective re-tellings take place in the modern day. NJ Ramsden’s Icarus effortlessly imbues a story set in a Second World War prison camp with the lyricism and language of the fairy tale. Rather than detract from the seriousness of the plot, this merging of genres only enhances the themes of entrapment and escape which power the narrative towards a transcendent climax.
Despite the tradition of evil queens and infanticidal mothers which has previously dominated the genre, a rich seam of feminism runs through these tales. In Finola Scott’s beautifully poetic Paths of Desire, the female protagonist encounters a community of discarded women whose mouths have literally been sewn shut by men. In a society where youth and beauty equate to female worth, the protagonist contemplates her own grisly fate as she fails in her duty to conceive a son:
Her dreams are full of bloodied lips, creased flesh hanging from bone.
In a more symbolic questioning of female identity, the young wives in Hannah Malhotra’s How Women Came to Love Mirrors are obliged to surrender any names they have previously been called, instead adopting the more prosaic label of Wife. Before long the woman at the centre of the story starts to find herself falling through solid walls, much to the incredulity of her husband and the sympathy of the other unnamed, and equally insubstantial, wives. This affliction can only be remedied by the woman’s obsessive studying of her own reflection in a looking glass. It is not difficult to miss the author’s point about the shedding of any individuality creating an absence of physical self. Malhotra’s coyly ambiguous last line skewers the hypocrisy which strips women of any meaningful identity whilst condemning their need for self-affirmation:
Perhaps she dreamed of a day when women would not need the mirrors. Perhaps she did.
The purity and power of nature is a recurring theme in many of the stories. Women are seen as almost mythical creatures occupying the hinterland between the human and animal worlds. In Rebecca Ann Smith’s Rumpelstiltskin, which perfectly recreates the sing-song cadence of the traditional fairy-tale, the miller’s daughter is depicted as a sprite-like creature, more a part of the natural world than the human one:
She settled into a pattern of spending her days in the woods and the fields, or swimming in the river, watching the plants and little woodland animals, or sometimes just lying on her back staring at the sky.
She ultimately sacrifices her untamed existence for the sterile confines of marriage in order to please the other male in her life – her father. In Rachel Rivett’s ‘Seal Woman’, this sense of intrusion is even more pronounced; the protagonist is literally plucked from her idyllic sisterhood of fellow seal-women by the lurking threat of a man:
And while the sea sang and sucked and hissed and kissed we stamped our feet on stone and span and laughed for sweet wild joy of it. Breathless with night; giddy with the prickle of starshine on my skin. And so I didn’t see him.
For fans of Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie and other purveyors of magical realism, there are rich pickings to be found in this collection. Some of the metaphors chosen by the authors may be slightly heavy-handed but fairy tales have traditionally relied on blunt symbolism to relay their messages about society, sexuality and womanhood, whether it’s the pricking of a virginal finger or an apple offered by a serpentine queen.
The tone, language and setting of the individual stories in the anthology may differ but all of the writers have captured the ‘deep, wild magic’ that can be found running like mercury through the veins of traditional fables. It is impossible not to find yourself drawn into a world which is deceptively familiar and yet distorted, much like the mirrored reflections which haunt the women in so many of the tales.
About the Publisher:
Mother’s Milk Books is a small, family-run press, which aims to celebrate femininity and empathy through images and words, with a view to normalizing breastfeeding. Mother’s Milk Books receives no grant funding and the press survives purely through sales of books, cards and prints. The press was set up in 2011 and its first title Musings on Mothering, edited by Teika Bellamy, was published in September 2012. This charity anthology of art, poetry and prose about pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding continues to raise funds for La Leche League GB, a breastfeeding support charity.
Review by Katie Witcombe
Katie is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.