I have read half of this book at random, so I will make the disclaimer that this review is not 100% informed. But, this collection is so uneven & frustrating, it will be awhile before I pick it back up again. I read this book around the same time as the Everyman Library’s collection called Bedtime Stories & the extremes between the two illustrates the difference between reviving the storytelling art of fairy tales & reinterpreting an existing fairy tale. Bernheimer’s collection does the second & with less than stellar results.
In the opening statements of her introduction, Bernheimer writes “I would argue all great narratives are fairy tales whatever their shape.” This statement is as tricky as the one someone first encounters in Creative Writing 101, where “anything can be a poem.” No, both statements are incorrect. A fairy tale, like a poem, follows specific conventions & deals with intense subject matter in an evocative & elemental way. The power & “magic” stems from how you use or twist those rules. Sad to say that nothing that interesting is happening here. The stories collected here are too unorganized & catchall. If, as Bernheimer suggests, that “a fairy tale is a story with a fairy tale feel” then why do I feel so uninspired by what is offered?
Here is an example: The Everyman’s Bedtime Stories includes “The Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter (who Bernheimer’s collection is dedicated to). Using the most basic elements of “The Beauty & the Beast,” Carter writes a story that becomes an exploration of humankind’s own animal nature & the hollowness of civilization. She does not retell a version we already know; she twists the familiar elements & leaves the story open enough for our imaginations to do the work. Compare that to Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” included in this book. Jackson creates a super post-modern retelling where all the different symbols of the original story are dissected & reconfigured into myriad variations. It’s a brain teaser, a mental exercise that, in the end, goes nowhere because all possibilities have been exhausted. Fairy tales can survive in an contemporary world, as proved by authors like Oscar Wilde, Isak Dinesan & A.S. Byatt. But only because we let them grow, not because we tease them to death.
With that said, there are powerful stories in Bernheimer’s collection, but they are few. The ones I enjoyed the most were Joyelle McSweeney’s “The Warm Mouth,” Michael Martone’s “A Bucket of Warm Spit,” Michael Mejia’s “Coyote Takes Us Home.” These tales call on the folkloric origins of fairy tales, when we told stories not just to pass the time, but to reconcile larger forces in our world. These three stories tap into what is frightening & compelling about the world around us now. In these cases, the form of the fairy tale seems to simplify these authors’ stories into the most accessible, rawest elements that can jolt a reader. & that’s when the magic happens.