My Grandmother Asked My to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

After reading and loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I really didn’t want to leave his voice or the world he creates with his haunting words. So, I picked up My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (or that she Sends Her Regards and Apologies, depending which edition you get), unable to resist the quirky title, and was delighted I did.

24469230In this novel, Backman introduces the reader to the almost preternaturally bright, precocious and quite lovable seven year-old Elsa. Bullied at school, aware of her differences and trying to pretend her clever and busy mother’s pregnancy to her new and perfect boyfriend aren’t bothering her, Elsa is a child that arouses passionate responses in those who meet her – and, if she doesn’t right away, she ensures they soon will. The reason for her quirkiness, intelligence and strong awareness of what constitutes social justice becomes apparent almost immediately. Not only is Elsa equipped with a great mind and wonderful imagination, both are fiercely and lovingly cultivated by her outrageous and smart grandmother.

Every night, Elsa’s beloved and feisty grandmother, takes her to the Land of Almost-Awake, a land that she and Elsa have nurtured and developed, populating it with a history, other places and peoples for as many years as Elsa can remember.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies (this is not a spoiler, it is in the blurb), she entrusts to Elsa an important quest. In order to fulfil this quest, Elsa must not only face the monsters that have terrified her for years, but even vanquish them. Like the heroes in the Land of Almost-Awake, she must make friends of strangers, allies of enemies and reach out to those who need her more than the other way around. Most importantly, she must find the courage she sometimes lacks and be braver than she’s ever been before – lives depend upon it. In doing so, she learns about herself, her mother and her grandmother; history and the present melding in unexpected, dangerous and delightful ways.

Drawing on reality as much as imagination, Elsa’s quest and the people she encounters and dreams, also explore the eternal questions of life and death, conformity versus uniqueness and why we wear masks – to both hide and protect our true selves. The novel also explores the complexity of families and why and how sometimes the family we choose is made of stronger bonds than those we are born into.

This a beautiful novel that draws on invented and well-known tales (Harry Potter features strongly) and has a cast of original and compelling characters. Inhaled this book – I think anyone who loved Backman’s others will as well.

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While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

This sumptuous, beautifully written and conceived novel is fundamentally a retelling of the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty – only it’s so much more as well. Forget what you think you know of the Disneyfied myth of the beautiful princess who, cursed at birth is rescued from certain death by an errant (fairy) godmother only to fall asleep when her finger is pricked by a spindle on her sixteenth birthday before she’s rescued by true love’s kiss decades later. This version, told by an elite servant, Elise, in the castle in which Princess Rose (also called Beauty) is born and raised, places the kernel of this story (the lovely but tragic princess) in a much larger context.

18079665Told as a story within a story, the frame narrative introduces us to the elderly Elise, who listening to her grand-daughter recount the tale of Sleeping beauty, finds herself flung back into her own past and a story she’s kept locked away for decades. Compelled to tell her granddaughter the truth behind the legend and her role within it, Elise’s tale begins…

Commencing when Elise is a child, the reader follows the hardship, loss, dedication, hard work and some good fortune this bastard child from a poor farm experiences, all of which lead to her becoming lady-in-waiting to the queen of a small kingdom that could be anywhere in Europe around the time of the Renaissance.

The castle in which Elise works is filled with personalities and internal politics. Despite her efforts to remain remote and simply do her duty, she becomes caught up and draws positive and negative attention. From the vengeful but loving king, to the deeply sad queen whose desperation to have a child leads her to make poor choices, Elise finds herself front and centre of an unfolding personal and greater drama of desire, ambition, need, love and fear. Overseeing all of this is the king’s Aunt Millicent, a cruel, controlling woman whose greatest ambition, to rule the land, was thwarted a long time ago and which she’s never come to terms with. There’s also her sister, the love-lorn and quite fey Flora, who remains in a tower built especially for the two sisters when they were young.

Then there’s the other servants and various confidantes, knights, diplomats etc who either barely tolerate Elise or embrace her for the qualities they recognise in the fine woman she’s becoming.

Amidst war, revenge, sickness, love, lust, great joy and heartache, Elise’s story and that of the rulers of this land and the child finally born to them unfolds. Ever with an eye to detail, Blackwell constructs the castle and its surrounds, as well as the people who populate the building and lands so simply yet poetically and realistically they’re brought to life – and all through the eyes of Elise, one of the strongest and most loyal of the queen’s subjects, but who has her own secrets to bear.

A friend recommended this book to me and I do love a good fairytale retelling. This book exceeded my already high expectations by being so original in its approach and, indeed, what it does with a well-known and beloved narrative. Gone is the hocus-pocus to be replaced by an eerie sensibility, a place and time where chthonic magic, wild and untamed exists but is wielded with dangerous consequences. Replacing wands and wings with will and determination, the novel overturns not only the fairytale, but stereotypes and clichés to present a marvellous story about strong women, loving women, weak and wicked women and the men who either support or suborn them – often for their own purposes.

A wonderful novel that I found difficult to put down and which is still resonating days after I completed it.

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Book Review: Cinder, Marissa Meyers

Talk about judging a book by its cover! While searching for a completely different book, I found Cinder, book one of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer and was intrigued by the stunning cover – it’s one that warrants closer examination and functions beautifully as a metaphor for the entire story. The title grabbed me as well as I adore retellings of the old tales (if they’re done well) and “Cinderella” (the Grimm and earlier versions) was always a particular favourite.

Set in the city if New Beijing, in a future where World War Four happened over a hundred years earlier creating new geo-political allegiances and countries, the Moon is not only settleCinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)d but is populated by a hostile race of “Lunars” who utilise “magic” (which is rationalised scientifically) as a form of control, a strange plague is decimating the people of the city, this a science fiction novel par excellence that dives straight into the story and lets the world building occur organically, within the telling. Cinder, the main characters is not only a cyborg, but a gifted mechanic who works in a crowded bustling market where she is all but ignored by the other retailers, but not customers who appreciate her talents. But it’s when one particular customer enters her premises, that her life changes…

Following the fundamental tropes of the original tale from which it draws, and paying homage to Anime at the same time, Meyer’s book nonetheless manages to offer something unique. While Cinder is an orphan who was adopted at the age of eleven and lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters, there’s a prince and a ball, that’s where the similarity really ends (bar a couple of additional bits, but I don’t want to spoil the story). Cinder is a loyal and courageous young woman whose self-esteem has been crushed but not broken by her step-mother. Her talent as a mechanic allows her a level of freedom and access to others, as does her friendship with and ability to repair robots and her own mechanical limbs.

Aware she is a cyborg and that they’re regarded as inhuman and less than second-rate citizens, Cinder harbours no ill-will, only a painful awareness of her lack of worth which translates into an acceptance of sometimes harsh and unfair penalties.

When the dreaded plague impacts upon Cinder and those she loves, and the hostile Lunar Queen descends to earth with an offer she won’t allow to be refused, Cinder is forced to confront not only her past, but her destiny as well.

Tight prose, believable characters, a once magical plot grounded in science and futuristic tropes, this is a terrific read that should tick all the boxes for lovers of science fiction, romance, recast fairytales and just well written imaginative novels. It also explores friendship, xenophobia, disease and the terrible toll i! takes, loss, refusing to be victim and staying true to oneself.

The ending sets up the next book in the series reasonably well, though also obviously if not clumsily (when you read it, you’ll see what I mean – the action/motivation doesn’t quite ring true – I don’t see why what’s suggested has to wait). Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the next novel in this series very much and will be interested to see how Meyers, who used the original tale so well thus far takes this beloved character and plot into new territory.

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Happy Sever After? Snow White and the enduring power of fairytales

This is the unedited version of my column which appears in the Courier Mail, Wednesday 23 November 2011

Capitalising on the publicity generated by the second last film in the Twilight saga, Breaking Yawn, I mean, Breaking Dawn: Part One, the trailer for Kristen Stewart’s forthcoming film, Snow White and the Huntsman, has been released.

This latest version of a beloved fairytale (one of two – the other is the comical Mirror, Mirror starring Julia Roberts), with Stewart as Snow White, Charlize Theron as the wicked queen and Australian Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman, purports to offer a different spin on a tried and true tale.

What’s prompted most commentary is not the violence, the fact the film introduces Snow White as more or less an action heroine, or that the prince is relegated to practical obscurity, so much as punters can’t believe anyone would consider Stewart more beautiful than Theron.

As one wit wrote when discovering the casting: “Snow way!”

Ironically, these superficial comments strike at the heart of the original tale and a universal truth. The queen’s obsession with her mirror is not so much about beauty as it’s about the passage of time and the fact that age wearies us all eventually. Even those whose temporary loveliness allows them to wield extraordinary power must pass the baton to younger generations.

That is, unless you have access to magic.

Theron and Stewart simply embody, both in fiction and fact, what’s a contemporary reality, especially in Hollywood where female ageing stars (with few exceptions) find it difficult to secure meaningful roles and big salaries.

More than ever, youth is beauty. It’s a contemporary currency that doesn’t only give women a sense of longevity it keeps us from becoming redundant.

In the Twenty-First century, surgeons are the new wizards and fairies who, with a wave of the magic scalpel, offer the transformations once only possible in the pages of Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Anderson or Charles Perrault. Only now, these modifications occur without the moral lessons; the price they exact is deducted from a bank account.

Is Snow White and the Hunstman going to be one of a rare breed of fairytale remakes, where a valuable moral message is imparted, or have the makers opted for the safety of happily ever after instead?

In retelling any fairytale, producers would do well to look to the source material. Disney claimed to refer to the original tales only to discard their imperatives in favour of a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

There’s no doubt that the 1937 Disney animated version of Snow White, with its domestic goddess, Betty-Boop voiced star who considers work play and elicits the help (as so many Disney heroines are wont to do) of woodland creatures, has gently coloured every one since. Yet, what the story has at its heart (pardon the pun) is, states fairytale expert, Maria Tatar, “a reflection of a young woman’s development.”

In her study of fairytales, Tatar notes the cultural variations in the accounts of Snow White, which appear in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Considerably bloodthirsty, they feature silver, lead, or jewel-encrusted coffins, apples ingested, suffocating braids, poisoned combs, and the delivery of a variety of the protagonist’s body parts including the lungs, intestines and liver.

Despite these departures from the best-known version, the crux of the story remains the same, which is the reason for the narrative constancy and cultural durability of Snow White.

It relies on a stable core of binary oppositions to relay the tale: birth and death, expulsion (by the queen)/adoption (by the dwarves), jealousy/affection. It also plays out the generational conflict between mother/step-mother and daughter and their vying for the attention/approval of the father or father figure – absent and present.

This latter role is filled by a number of characters from the mirror to the huntsman and the prince.

According to Marina Warner, in her marvellous book, From the Beast to the Blonde, in the original Snow White, before the Grimm brothers meddled, there was no step-mother. It was Snow White’s mother who suffered murderous (sexual) jealousy and persecuted her daughter. Shifting these terrible attributes onto a stepparent fitted with prevailing social (and Christian) attitudes of the time.

Psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, explains that tales like Snow White do not “stage scenarios that correspond to real life; rather they dramatize projections of trouble brewing in the young child’s mind.” In other words, like all fairytales, they externalise secret fears to make them manageable, to vanquish the beast.

Poet W.H Auden once declared that the Grimm’s fairytales ranked “next to the Bible in importance.”

It’s typical that in times of insecurity and crisis we turn to the proven morality of beloved fairytales. Only what will be interesting is what type of morals and lessons these new versions of Snow White offer.

Will the mirror, mirror of cinema dare to explore the power and struggles of women beyond beauty, or will it simply represent ageing as a female curse we would do anything to lift?

 

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