“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.
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.
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.