Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Review: 'A Wild Swan' by Michael Cunningham

Fairy tales are a big favourite of mine, especially the kind of fairy tales that retain something of the brutal honesty of the originals, before the Victorians for their hands on them. I couldn't have been happier with how Cunningham has approached the original fairy tales. Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins UK for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/11/2015
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Fairy tales for our times from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours 
A poisoned apple and a monkey's paw with the power to change fate; a girl whose extraordinarily long hair causes catastrophe; a man with one human arm and one swan's wing; and a house deep in the forest, constructed of gumdrops and gingerbread, vanilla frosting and boiled sugar. In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, the people and the talismans of lands far, far away—the mythic figures of our childhoods and the source of so much of our wonder—are transformed by Michael Cunningham into stories of sublime revelation. 
Here are the moments that our fairy tales forgot or deliberately concealed: the years after a spell is broken, the rapturous instant of a miracle unexpectedly realized, or the fate of a prince only half cured of a curse. The Beast stands ahead of you in line at the convenience store, buying smokes and a Slim Jim, his devouring smile aimed at the cashier. A malformed little man with a knack for minor acts of wizardry goes to disastrous lengths to procure a child. A loutish and lazy Jack prefers living in his mother's basement to getting a job, until the day he trades a cow for a handful of magic beans.
Reimagined by one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, and exquisitely illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, rarely have our bedtime stories been this dark, this perverse, or this true. 
Fairy tales are beautiful reflection of culture and society. Ever asked yourself why there's so many step-mothers and why those so often turn the children out of doors? Well, medieval Europe wasn't an easy place to live and with disease and terrible hygiene, mothers often died and families often couldn't feed their children. It's this kind of historicity that I love about the original tales behind what we now see as fairy tales. Folk tales are distinctly different in quality to fairy tales, the latter of which are very much an adaptation of the former by the French first, and then by the Victorians in England. They became too moralistic, too clean and thereby lost much of their magic. Michael Cunningham has achieved a perfect reversal in his stories which aren't quite as drastic as Angela Carter's were in The Bloody Chamber but which are definitely worth a read.

Cunningham's fairy tales are very different from their originals. If you're a stickler for your fairy tale being always like the Disney version, then don't attempt Cunningham's versions. He returns to the more honest brutality of the original tales and moves it to a 21st century setting, with a more balanced view at every party involved. The swans are still rich princes, but perhaps their step-mother is a little bit more understandable. Jack still gets magic beans, but, more so than ever, he's reminiscent of the boys we see hanging around every single day. There's a more active role for women in Cunningham's A Wild Swan and, in my eyes, 'Beauty and the Beast' is once again my favourite. Something about that tale allows it be explored and changed in a lot of depth.

I haven't read anything by Michael Cunningham before but have had The Hours on my shelf for as long as I can remember. His prose in these stories is incredibly rich and comfortable to read. There'll be little plays on words and on tradition. We expect a fairytale to start with 'Once upon a time' and Cunningham starts it with 'Once, in a time,'. Little things like this give his stories something extra and allow him to make these really his own. Although only a short volume of stories, they each leave an impact on the reader. Yuko Shimizu's illustrations are absolutely stunning as well, truly adding to the stories and capturing them very well.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

If you're a sucker for fairytales, like me, then A Wild Swan is for you. Cunningham gives you completely different takes on traditional fairy tales. Each adaptation adds something  to the tradition of the tale itself as well and you certainly won't forget these adaptations quickly. I'd recommend this to fans of fairy tales and magical realism.

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