Emma Donoghue has managed to completely overwhelm me with her book of fairy tales, Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins. Her writing in this stunning collection somehow channels the smooth and effortless voice of old, old tales passed down with the tongues of tellers around campfires, while at the same time infusing these stories with a raw, contemporary queer feminine/ist consciousness. Having read two of Donoghue’s other books (Astray and Landing), both of whose narrative styles are noticeably different than that in Kissing the Witch, I can confidently say that Donoghue’s versatility is impressively extensive. This book is truly a masterpiece. There is nothing in Kissing the Witch I did not think was gorgeous and revolutionary.
Perhaps one reason I loved this book so much is that I wasn’t expecting to. First, I had had mixed feelings about Donoghue’s most recent collection of short stories, although I had loved Landing. Second, I’ve never had a particular interest in fairy tales; in fact, my expectation was that I might not enjoy tales featuring archetypal characters rather than the realist folks that I usually read about. I am happy to admit I was totally and utterly wrong.
At first what drew me in and held my attention was Donoghue’s simple yet dazzling prose. Consider, for example, the opening of the first story, “The Tale of the Shoe”:
Till she came it was all cold.
Every since my mother died the feather bed felt hard as a stone floor. Every word that came out of my mouth limped away like a toad. Whatever I put on my back now turned to sackcloth and chafed my skin. I heard a knocking in my skull, and kept running to the door, but there was never anyone there. The days passed like dust brushed from my fingers.
There’s such a plethora of evocative, emotional language in just this short passage; I especially love the image of words limping like toads. The short sentences, mostly bereft of punctuation, have a fierce, visceral impact. The book incredibly sustains this emotional and visceral effect throughout. In fact, it’s very difficult for me to even isolate certain passages because, truly, the entire collection is flawlessly beautiful. All right, if I have to choose something, let me share the revelation at the end of the retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” titled as “The Tale of the Rose”:
I saw hair black as rocks under water. I saw a face white as old linen. I saw lips red as a rose just opening.
I saw that the beast was a woman. And that she was breathing, which seemed to matter more….
This was a strange story, one I would have to learn a new language to read, a language I could not learn except by trying to read the story.
I took me days to learn that there was nothing monstrous about this woman who had lived alone in a castle, setting all her suitors riddles they could make no sense of, refusing to do the things queens are supposed to do, until the day when, knowing no one could see her true face, she made a mask and from then on showed her face to no one. It took me weeks to understand why the faceless mask and the name of the beast might be chosen over all the great world had to offer. After months of looking, I saw that beauty was infinitely various, and found it behind her white face.
Amidst these narrative twists—that’s right, the ‘beast’ is not man but woman—these stories retain the raw violence, harsh conditions, and tender, crude bodies that you might recognize if you’ve ever read the unsanitized versions of the fairy tales airbrushed by the likes of Disney. Death happens as a matter of course, blood spills, lives are threatened and gambled, and women are vicious, jealous, and ambitious as well as noble, beautiful, and brave. In Donoghue’s tales, though, they are also achingly human: the villains as we know them are never simply evil, and the heroines are never portrayed as those ideal yet uninspiring women you can’t relate to. In fact, the dichotomy between heroine/villain slowly fades away, particularly as you read stories from the perspectives of evil stepmothers and ruthless work matrons.
After you’re sunken into Donoghue’s writing as if it were a warm pool of mud, you’ll enjoy investigating and realizing which tale is a re-telling of a certain one that’s oh so familiar. Once you know you’ve stumbled upon, for example, the story of Rapunzel or the Little Mermaid, though, you continue reading in suspense to see how Donoghue has lovingly reshaped and respun the tale. Each story leads into the next, so that women who sometimes played only minor roles in the original versions of fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, have a chance to tell their stories. This structure gives a wonderful, velvety flow that is often lacking in short story collections. The tales bleed effortlessly into one another, until the last one—coincidentally, the most explicitly lesbian—hands the reins over to the reader herself to continue the storytelling, both timeless and unique: “This is the story you asked for. I leave it in your mouth.”