I was a girl raised on fairy tales, everything from Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers through to sweet and cleansed Disney film versions of classic fairy tales. In my experience good fairy tales get beneath your skin. They keep you awake at night wondering what if… They bring hopes, dreams, and fears to the surface and make us imagine what would happen if we were these characters, what would we do? When we think of fairy tales, many of us remember ‘happy ever after’ endings and good triumphing over evil and the prince who always finds his princess. But most fairy tales are more gruesome than this, evils go unpunished, violence is much more adult, sexual and morally questionable, and the endings are far from happy.
When I got the chance to read Kate Bernheimer’s Horse Flower Bird, I realised it has been a long time since I read any good fairy tales. ‘Eight marvellous, melancholy new fairy tales for daring readers’, we read on the back of this book. A quick flick reveals eight disturbing illustrations showing creatures who are mostly half-animal/half-human; and tales that what seemed to be tiny chapters on each page.
There is no disputing these are adult tales. A Cuckoo’s Tale is about one girl’s experience of the Day of Atonement where she gets to ‘feel bad while wearing her nicest outfit’. This tale contains a perfect exploration of a child’s confused understanding of forgiveness and sin, ‘people who had been cooked in ovens’, and her fear of the stories her grandmother used to tell her. There is a very innocent feel to the telling of all these stories, and yet what we bring is our adult interpretation, our fears and horrible imaginations. What could be very innocent is twisted into a reality that we know exists for this girl beyond what she tells us.
It is a shuddering start to the collection. The other seven stories are equally chilling. All have this same innocent story-telling style, with revealing details that show us that all is not well. We have the tale of seventeen year old Edith who lives in a house of phobias with her parakeet ‘Pretty Eyes’ who she loves so much it is painful. Astrid has a life-sized doll, then an imaginary doll and when both of these are lost, she retreats into her own mind. Two sisters enact a violent and obsessive version of Star Wars.
These stories are very spare, stripped down to their ugly bare bones, with no hint of romance. There are classic fairy tale symbols such as turrets, blackbirds, forests, imprisonment, secrets. Inanimate objects have feelings, animals are like humans (and vice versa), and the main characters, who are all girls, are trying to escape something awful. Sadly, most of them escape to a worse situation. None of these tales have happy ever after endings: girls flee home, or fail to thrive and no one gets saved. Yet they are still beautiful.
These stories are very short, and it’s a collection that can be read in an hour, but I would say they are stories to return to again and again. They have depth and a troubling inclination to linger afterwards, like after we wake from a bad dream.
On a less positive note, I was unsure why the stories we stretched over many pages with brief paragraphs sitting alone on the page, and in some cases only a sentence or a couple of words. Perhaps it added to the tension or created the pauses the writer wanted in her tales for the reader to absorb the full meaning fully, and certainly, sometimes there is something enticing about an almost blank page. But, it didn’t always make sense to this reader.
But these are good fairy tales. They have an ‘other worldly’ feel to them, and there is a sense that we are experiencing a series of disturbing dreams. They are beautifully written, very spare stories for the kind of reader who enjoys engaging his or her imagination in order to inhabit the spaces within these stories, wonder about what is unsaid or suggested, and start to interpret the different levels of meaning.
Any Cop: For the lover of adult fairy tales, this is a very special treat.