First, let me apologize for my extended absence. I was in the middle of moving across several state lines, and when I got to my new home it took a certain company quite a while to get the internet up and running in my house. Because I’m not keen on composing blog posts while using the internet at Denny’s, I let the blog linger. But I’m back with a series of book reviews on what I’ve been reading for the past month. They’ll also stand in for my weekly roundup this week—no internet means I haven’t a clue about anything that’s been going on this past week or two.
To start today’s review, here’s the copy from the back cover of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer:
Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Chris Adrian, Lydia Millet, and more than thirty other extraordinary writers celebrate fairy tales in this thrilling volume—the ultimate literary costume party.
Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered from around the world by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino.
Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the imaginative frontiers of the new twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.
This collection won this years’ World Fantasy award for the anthology category.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fairy tale junkie. Base something on a fairy tale and I can hardly keep myself away from it for long. So when I heard about the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (edited by Kate Bernheimer), I had my eye out for it everywhere. It took a bit of finding, but I got myself a copy.
The collection is a gem. That isn’t to say I enjoyed every story (the charm of anthologies is that even if you don’t like every story, you’re bound to get plenty that you do like). However, each story added something to the fairy tale tradition. Some stories were retellings of fairy tales; some took a tale as a starting off point; some borrowed character or thematic arcs without matching up neatly on the details. After every story is a short snippet from the author explaining why he or she chose a particular base story and how his or her story was influenced by whichever the “original” (a dangerous word in fairy tales, but most authors pointed to a specific book they’d read as a child as their source).
The stories ran the gamut on genre: fantasy, magic realism, realism, environmentalist manifesto, daily log, and questionnaire all made an appearance. Many of the stories’ tones were dark (the anthology’s title aptly forewarns you of that), some were quaint, and a few really resonated with me.
It’s difficult to talk about an entire anthology, so I’ll talk about a few stories. My favorites were “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender (inspired by Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”), “Catskin” by Kelly Link (inspired by Joseph Jacobs’s “Catskin”), “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” by Kevin Brockmeier, and “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” by Neil LaBute (both based on “Rumpelstiltskin”).
“The Color Master” is about the tailors and cloth-dyers that created the dresses that were the color of the moon, sun, and sky for the princess in “Donkeyskin,” the princess who is trying to invent impossible pre-marital tasks for her father so she doesn’t have to marry him. Unfortunately these tailors are very good at their jobs and create the impossible dresses the princess requires. The main character is torn between her exhilaration at meeting the requirements and her mentor’s revulsion at the attempted incest of the king. The descriptions are sublime.
“Catskin” was uniquely dark and bizarre, and it veered far from the story that inspired it (to be fair, Link says it is inspired by many fairy tales). “Catskin” manages to feel like a fairy tale while telling a completely new and intriguing story.
The Rumpelstiltskin stories are both very different, and both made me think about the funny little man very differently. “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” is really creepy, probably creepier because it’s a realist story, but it’s done very well and had my arm-hairs standing on end almost the entire time. It’s essentially the return of the Rumpelstiltskin stand-in character: he has found the mother and her daughter after years and approaches the mother on a park bench while the daughter plays on the playground, unaware.
The anthology does what it sets out to do: it displays how fairytale narratives infuse our lives, whether we acknowledge them or not. I was impressed with how the stories stretched and expanded what it means for a story to be based on a fairy tale. Each story gains something because it has a foil narrative—whichever “original” story you as the reader have in your head—and through that foil you interact with the story in a different way than you would if it stood alone. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me has stories that will appeal to a broad range of readers, many of whom wouldn’t believe they’d like a retold fairy tale. While I didn’t enjoy every minute of the book, I enjoyed the ride it took me on.
A few content warnings to those of you who are considering this book: some stories include rough language, explicit sex, and extreme violence. Fairy tales have a lot of psychosexual themes and many are inherently violent, and several of the anthology’s authors ran that route. If you’re squeamish (which I often am), dip your toes in a story before diving in—skip it if you want to. The charm of the anthology is that there are plenty of other stories if one of them doesn’t suit your fancy.