[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]
Angela Slatter writes fairy-tales for adults, but not just any fairy-tales. They are not just ribald retellings, or tales which have been subverted merely for the sake of it. No, Ms Slatter delves much deeper than that, pile-driving her way to the core of the traditional fairy-tale, the type that we know so well courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. As Jack Dann notes in his introduction (Caressing with Razors), many of these ‘traditional’ tales were themselves subverted to fit a patriarchal agenda, to shape the gender roles so beloved of the society prevailing at the time. Times have changed, but more often than not those traditional tales haven’t, and they are retold countless times preserving the original intent of the ‘retellers’.
In The Girl with No Hands, Slatter hauls some familiar tropes, willingly or not, into the 21st century. Her women, for instance, no longer bow to the patriarchal ‘head of the family’, the type of man who insists on carving the roast every Sunday and presiding at the top of the table. Instead, the females are liberated in every sense; mentally, psychologically and sexually. They know themselves and they know exactly what it is they want. Like the young girl in Red Skein, a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, who not only knows she’s different, but positively revels in that very difference from the others of her village. She isn’t afraid to show those around her exactly who she is, and also why her mother is wrong in attempting to stifle it. Then there’s the woman in The Little Match Girl, stoically unrepentant and in the end deciding her own fate, irrespective of the one handed down to her by male authority.
Power, and freedom, is vested in the hands of women to take control of their own lives, a point wonderfully made in the absolutely beautifully-wrought The Living Book. The female narrator is, quite literally, just that; a living book, with words flashing across her skin for all to read. She is made, ultimately, through nothing more than the pride of a male creator, (a point which can be read on so many different levels), and the denouément comes as the result of absorbing the ethics and ideas of the modern world. The female writer in Words knowingly has both power and freedom as well, a point she forcefully makes when her neighbours and compatriots cause her grief for expressing herself and wilfully defying the conventions and diktat of so-called ‘societal norms’.
Many of the men in Slatter’s stories appear weak, greedy and very flawed. Davide in Bluebeard is one such; he desires Lilly’s mother greatly, but there’s more than a hint he also desires the child’s flesh just as much as her mother’s. The same can be said of Master Justin De Freitas in Dresses, Three, inappropriately desiring above all else his beautiful niece Aurora. Then there’s the greedy, avaricious king looking to refill his impoverished coffers in Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope, a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, as well as the titular character being much nastier and sleazier than the original fairy-tale.
So far (and I put my hand up here willingly), what I have written appears to paint Ms. Slatter in a very heavy-handed feminist light. This is very far from the truth. There are good men here, as well as bad women. In The Girl with No Hands, although the girl’s father is depicted in a less than flattering way, the king is the very opposite, and is the epitome of the kindly, doting husband and father. Even the kingly character in the Rumpelstiltskin retelling becomes a model man once his fortunes have been restored. In Skin, the shortest and quite possibly the finest tale on offer here, the human husband of the Selkie girl is the most loving man that any woman can want. Slatter is also well aware that women are human, and therefore subject to the same species of frailties and evils as all people are. Not all of them are heroines; the mother in Frozen, who leaves her little son to freeze to death outside the bingo hall where she’s enjoying herself, is anything but. Neither is the Second Wife in The Juniper Tree, whose weakness is jealousy and whose subsequent companion is regret.
What I am trying to get at here, is the raw humanity of the panoply of people who live in Slatter’s tales. These are real people, with real emotions and real desires, real strengths and real weaknesses: a microcosm of the real world. Thus, whoever they are and however they behave, we empathise with them fully, both the good and the bad. Slatter has distilled that humanity into beautifully-written and brightly poetic tales, stories that sing out and resonate with our own experiences of the Big, Bad World. In the same fashion that the fairy-tales originally collected and reworked by Andersen and Joseph & Wilhelm Grimm closely mirrored the type of society and world they moved in, so do Slatter’s updated retellings reflect the world as it is now.
Above all, these stories sparkle and shine. It would have been far too easy to produce pastiches of traditional fairy-stories, just in order to put a point across. Slatter wants to redress the imbalances of the older iterations of the tales, and she succeeds in doing so by weaving her words with subtlety and finesse, rather than by being blunt. Just like, in fact, the originals defined the roles of children and gender without being explicit. This is what happens when these primal and powerful archetypes in prose are freed from the constraints of a world-view that no longer holds true. Their true power as purveyors of basic truths cannot be denied. More to the point here, Slatter has done so admirably, achieving a marriage that partners wonder with the prevailing zeitgeist of the early 21st century. On that basis alone, I heartily recommend that this book be sought out and digested – Slatter’s star is surely rising and it would be a shame to miss out on the celestial spectacle.