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Subversive Once Upon a Time, They All Lived Mainly Unhappily after……………..

A Wild SwanMichael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan is a darkly, slyly, sour and witty adaptation of some particularly potent faerie tales.

There’s more than a whiff of Angela Carteresque sumptuousness and sexual meaning out in the open, though Cunningham pulls many of these tales into the here and now.

How could I not start snickering, in a kind of wry, sophisticated fashion, at an opening like this:

Most of us are safe. If you’re not a delirious dream the gods are having, if your beauty doesn’t trouble the constellations, nobody’s going to cast a spell on you. No one wants to transform you into a beast or put you to sleep for a hundred years…
The middling maidens – the ones best seen by candlelight, corseted and rouged – have nothing to worry about. The pudgy, pockmarked heirs apparent, who torment their underlings and need to win at every game, are immune to curse and hex. B-list virgins do not excite the forces of ruination; callow swains don’t infuriate demons and sprites.

Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings

I was immediately captivated by the authorial voice which opens out ‘what’s really going on’ displaying the often difficult world of love and marriage, and mismatch between expectation and reality, to belie the traditional ‘they all lived happily ever after’ .

These morality tales (what faerie tales often were) updated, are often beautifully upended. So, for example, the beginning of Cunningham’s version of Jack and The Beanstalk, Jacked :

This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains.

Never mind asking him to sell the cow, when he and his mother are out of cash, and the cow is their last resort.

We’re talking about a boy who doesn’t get halfway to town with his mother’s sole remaining possession before he’s sold the cow to some stranger for a handful of beans….Jack isn’t doubtful. Jack isn’t big on questions. Jack is the boy who says, Wow, dude, magic beans, really?

I was absolutely thrilled to be offered this as a review copy by the publishers, Fourth Estate, in digital version………however, I would urge you to get the wood book, as there are stunning illustrations to each story, by the artist Yuko Shimizu, and I did long to see them on paper.

Yuko Shimizu's illustration for the story "Beasts"

Yuko Shimizu’s illustration for the story “Beasts”

The stories are pretty well all magnificent, and it will be the readers’ pleasure to work out which fairy tales they are based on. The Hansel and Gretel tale is probably my own particular favourite. Most do not end anywhere near happiness, and one must feel grateful, therefore, for the absence of that ‘ever after’Michael Cunningham

Though, to be fair, kind, a little bit magical and hopeful , the final story, Ever/After does give us one redemptive sweet tale to take away, albeit one which starts more realistically and less under the illusion of the romantic happy ever after. In the last story, the couple have fewer stars in their eyes and are not bewitched by sprinklings of too much magic.

HIGHLY recommended; in fact magical

These are, by the way, very definitely faerie stories for ADULTS and not for children

A Wild Swan: and other tales Amazon UK
A Wild Swan: and other tales Amazon USA