Sunday, April 3, 2016

Michael Cunningham's A Wild Swan

I saw a copy of A Wild Swan And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham at my library and picked it up. Book summary:

A poisoned apple and a monkey's paw with the power to change fate; a girl whose extraordinarily long hair causes catastrophe; a man with one human arm and one swan's wing; and a house deep in the forest, constructed of gumdrops and gingerbread, vanilla frosting and boiled sugar. In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, the people and the talismans of lands far, far away―the mythic figures of our childhoods and the source of so much of our wonder―are transformed by Michael Cunningham into stories of sublime revelation. 
Here are the moments that our fairy tales forgot or deliberately concealed: the years after a spell is broken, the rapturous instant of a miracle unexpectedly realized, or the fate of a prince only half cured of a curse. The Beast stands ahead of you in line at the convenience store, buying smokes and a Slim Jim, his devouring smile aimed at the cashier. A malformed little man with a knack for minor acts of wizardry goes to disastrous lengths to procure a child. A loutish and lazy Jack prefers living in his mother's basement to getting a job, until the day he trades a cow for a handful of magic beans.
Reimagined by one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, and exquisitely illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, rarely have our bedtime stories been this dark, this perverse, or this true.

To be honest, I wasn't too hopeful after reading the book's blurb. Yet another author trying to shock the audience by making fairy tales dark and perverse-by now the concept is the new cliche, yet publishers (or whoever writes book jacket blurbs) try to pass it off as new.

Yet, I really found myself enjoying the stories. Cunningham doesn't just try to twist fairy tales by throwing in extra adult themes, he seems to really understand not only many fairy tale themes, but human nature. While many of the tales are indeed dark (there is sexual content), there's a bittersweetness about them, and almost a refreshing air of truth to them. Cunningham makes minor changes to the fairy tale plots, but really explores certain traditional components. How did the witch from Hansel and Gretel end up in the forest in a candy house to begin with? What was life like for the twelfth brother who was left with one arm and one wing?
The stories are set in a modern world, but a world in which being touched by magic is nothing out of the ordinary. While bringing into question certain aspects of fairy tales (why does the giant's wife allow Jack to steal from them-three times?), he also manages to ground fairy tale plots and characters in actual life, and makes them seem very realistic. The motivations behind crazy fairy tale plots are actually motivations behind people we encounter in life. In all, the writing is very well done, and thought provoking. Even the stories that weren't my favorite would still provide interesting discussions. The stories themselves aren't super long, so it's a great book for busy people to tackle.

Also, isn't Yuko Shimizu's art provokative yet beautiful? (There are more images I would have liked to add, but they aren't necessarily safe for work...) If you look at the cover art at the top, not only are the words formed out of braided hair, but if you look at the background, there's an image of a swan there.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good! I added to my Goodreads list. Thanks for the post!