Category Archives: 4th Estate Books

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

9780008140380

Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

The Bees – Laline Paull

For someone who always bangs on about how much they dislike horses in fiction, as I am so suspicious of them in real life, you might think I am not a lover of nature. Actually I am a bit of a nature geek, I will lose the tiniest bit of street cred I have left now by saying I used to be a bird watcher or ‘twitcher’ (we won’t mention the stamp collecting, oops) and any television show with David Attenborough I have to record and will then watch enraptured. It is my fascination with nature that led to a small obsession over the New Year that I simply had to read Laline Paull’s debut The Bees a tale about a hive of bees. Even the fact that these bees talk (and we all know that I am deeply distrustful of talking animals in general) didn’t put me off. I did wonder if it might be a little Disney like yet as I discovered it couldn’t be further on the opposite end of the spectrum, The Bees is a gripping and often chilling literary thriller – make no mistake.

9780007557745

4th Estate Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 400 pages, bought by myself as my first treat of the year

The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond.
She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.
Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

And so Flora is born into the world of the hive and the hive mind. As a lowly worker Flora instinctively knows  from birth she only lives to do four things; accept, obey, serve and be prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. But Flora is not like the other bees, something which one of the Sister Sage’s (the priestesses of the hive) notices from her birth, she is different. While mutant bees are usually destroyed by their own kind, Flora has talents others of her kin don’t (speech and the ability to act alone, worker bees naturally just collect and dispose of the dead until they are, well, dead) and so is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the Queen’s offspring, before becoming a forager out collecting pollen. However Flora is also different from all the bees in another way (which I won’t spoil for you) and soon Flora becomes both a threat to the hive and potentially its only hope of survival.

Laline Paull does so many brilliant things with this book it is frankly rather difficult to know where to begin. Firstly though let us start with Flora 717 who, after getting over the initial unusual narration from a talking bee, is a wonderful protagonist and the perfect antiheroine in a novel that i by its very nature one of totalitarian regime. She questions things, she questions everything, she answers back, she does things she shouldn’t and she’s blooming brave in the face of many dangers. She’s gutsy and we all like a feisty protagonist don’t we? She is also an outsider and so we have empathy for her, especially when things take a darker and more complex turn.

Paull also creates a dark, controlled and claustrophobic world where orders must just be obeyed and the constant threat of ‘The Kindness’ lies in the eyes of all the other bees working to one hive mind. These are not cute and cuddly bumble bee’s, these are honey bees which, pun intended, are not as sweet as they sound –  for example there is a massacre, which happens once a year,  that I found genuinely shocking. There is also the danger of the outside world as a constant threat to the hive. There are other insects (let’s just say that spider and wasps aren’t bees natural allies) as well as other mammalian intruders including humans ourselves. The latter, along with the chemical threats to a bee, also highlight how in many ways we are abusing and endangering bees, which the environment needs and how a decline in them could be catastrophic in the long term. It has certainly made me rethink the value of honey.

Then there is also the world of the hive and how it operates. For the bees it is normal and they know no different but as readers we naturally humanise it, meaning from the start of the novel we compare their world to a totalitarian regime rather than nature doing what it has to do. Paull knows this and uses it wisely to highlight the cause and effect of such a culture. She also brings much more into the analogy of humankind as bees, if you know what I mean, in terms of gender politics, class, monarchy, religion and being different. There are layers and layers and layers, it’s a brimming book.

I mentioned above that this is a gripping novel. There is the pace and directness of the prose which to me read like a thriller, each chapter leaves you wanting to read on be it that something had happened in the hive or indeed to Flora herself. You also want to read on because the life of the bee and the beehive is so utterly fascinating. Both during reading and since I finished reading I have been coming out with endless facts about bees that I learnt through the book to anyone who will listen and several who won’t. Did you know bees can sting other bees without dying? Did you know bees were actually related to wasps but flowers changed all that? Did you know that there is a special mating ritual with a princess bee and her suitors? I could go on.

All this came together to form an absolutely brilliant novel; if you haven’t guessed it by now I absolutely loved The Bees. It is one of those books that has, like a beehive, so many levels to it. You can read it as a fascinating nature book (Laline only embellishes a few facts here and there for fictional purposes, bees don’t live a year for example) with an insight into the world of the bee. You can read it as a literary novel about feminism, society and beliefs. You can read it as a thriller or a fantasy, almost sci-fi like, novel too. However it is you read it, do read it. I cannot praise it highly enough.

So there we go my instincts were right, it’s a corker. Maybe insects are my think as I have also read and loved Grasshopper Jungle recently another very different book for me. Anyway, I will be very surprised if The Bees doesn’t get a nod from those lovely folk at The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction and even more surprised if it isn’t in my top five books of the year in December. If you would like to hear more about The Bees then listen to the latest You Wrote the Book where you can find me in conversation with Laline. Who else has read The Bees and what did you make of it?

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Laline Paull, Review