How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales is a book of short stories published by Coffee House Press who are a publisher we like (they publish Sam Savage who we are big fans of). It’s a slightly square paperback, it looks good, the paper feels nice (American books always feel slightly different to English books), the way in which the stories are set (sometimes only a sentence or two to a page) is attractive and draws the reader in and the small (often postage stamp sized) illustrations that litter the book are pretty. The nine stories contained in the book are okay too, for the most part, their length and the way in which the book has been set, contributing to a sense of ‘oh well, that one’s done now, on to the next one’ that lessens your desire to criticise overly (but we will, in a moment). Taken as a reading experience, it’s quite similar to Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, except that Emily Carroll’s book is a graphic novel and so the experience is comprised of both words and beautiful pictures (which enhances it greatly).
Bernheimer’s style is sweet, sort of faux naif, like Aimee Bender or Kelly Link. One story begins: Once upon a time there were two girls. One had blonde hair, one had brown. She isn’t afraid to pepper her sweetness with a beguiling snap, though. A long time ago I was very poor and often traded my body for cigarettes, goes another. There are witches and dinosaurs and librarians and talking shadows and all manner of Angela Carter-y goodness. BUT. Kate Bernheimer can’t end a story to save her life. There is not a single story in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales that ends well. Now I’m not saying they do not have happy ends, I’m saying that Bernheimer skips the end or dodges the end or elides the end or has the end disappear in a wisp of smoke or pats a pink ribbon on the head of an end and says, there, that one’s done with. A great many of the stories in the book have intriguing premises, or twisty middle sections, or original perspectives – but she blows every single one of them. One story ends, My story is done. One story ends (with three lines each of which are given a page each):
The disaster is now.
One story (‘Babes in the Wood’) is a Hansel and Gretel reboot with two sisters who find a third sister – and their evil step mother disappears (she went away – to a hospital – and the father was lonely) only to return without explanation at the end and the climax is gifted to the mother, who tells us:
And though she still wished to poison herself, only when she dies will that wish go away. And to this very day, she is still living, you see. She lives for her daughters. That’s the beauty of things.
Not being able to write a satisfying end would be forgivable, though, were it not for a quote popped in Bernheimer’s bio at the end of the book.
Kate Bernheimer has been called “one of the living masters of the fairy tale.”
By whom? If it’s by her mum, she shouldn’t include the quote in the book. If it’s by someone significant (Philip Pullman, say), then attribute it. Sticking it at the end of the book, as a humble aside (yes, yes, they say I’m one of the living masters of the fairy tale) feels phoney and slightly irritating. Coming at the end of a collection that has good things, yes, let’s admit it, going for it, whilst at the same time fluffing the punchlines of every joke it tries to tell, is misplaced.
Any Cop?: This is a book that would make a good gift for someone who likes slightly acid fairy tales. By giving the book as a gift, whoever is reading it would have to say nice things about it (I liked the story about the dinosaur) rather than mention any of the duff parts (she can’t write an end to save her life!).