Sunday 8 October 2017

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Review: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan (#Ad)

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre SullivanTangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

I was sent this review copy by Little Island Books & Bounce Marketing for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Tangled tales of eath, salty tales of water.

Bewitched retellings of classic fairy tales with brave and resilient heroines. Tales of blood and intrigue, betrayal and enchantment from a leading Irish YA author - not for the faint hearted or damsels in distress. From the blurb.

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan is absolutely beautiful. I'm a huge fan of fairy tale retellings, so I was sure I was going to love this collection, but I didn't expect it to blow me away quite as much as it did.

Sullivan's retellings are magical, because they have the heart of the original fairy tales we know, but also shine a light on how women were viewed and treated when these stories were first put to paper. A theme of how women are seen runs throughout most of these stories, and it is this:
'It's not about being sensible, or strong. It's not about being kind. It's not about the soft touch and the kind heart. Beauty and a womb. That's all you are.'
(Sister Fair, p62)
Reading those lines, it really struck me - as it continued to as I read on through the book - how little respect was given to women, how they were denied their humanity. Beauty and a womb. A toy and a tool, to be treated however your husband, your father, any man who notices you wishes to. A woman is property to be traded and taken, with no thought to what she may want, because why should what she wants matter? Time and again, throughout Sullivan's retellings, we are shown this. Women are nothing, or so we are seen.

And it's this that gives Sullivan's feminist retellings their darkness. We all know the sanitised Disney versions of fairy tales pretty well, but we also know that they are based on darker tales told by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault - ones full of death and tragedy. Sullivan's retellings retain some of that darkness, but she adds some of her own. Softened by Disney as we are, the original stories can be shocking, and although the same can be said of Sullivan's retellings, the darkness in Tangleweed and Brine feels like truth.
'A woman with a value is in danger. There is a ticking inside your womb.'
(Beauty and the Board, p149)
With Sullivan's retellings, in some cases the stories we know, including the originals, feel like Chinese whispers, stories that have been twisted and distorted in the re-telling over centuries - where Sullivan's retellings feel like the stories as they should have been told, before the distorting. There were some fairy tales Sullivan retells that I hadn't heard of before, like Donkeyskin and Fair, Brown and Trembling, and others I only knew the sanitised versions of. I would look up the plots of those stories before reading the retellings, to see how Sullivan changed things, and each time, Sullivan's stories felt more like the real story than the original. Especially with stories like Sister Fair, a retelling of Fair, Brown and Trembling, and The Little Gift, a retelling of The Goose Girl. To me, it felt like Sullivan's stories were true - more believable than the originals. Even with their magic, enchantment, and fantastical elements, Sullivan's stories feel like something I could believe happened. And it's the position of women at that time, and how Sullivan weaves that into her stories, that makes them so credible.

Some of the stories are incredibly disturbing, with Riverbed, a retelling of Donkeyskin, where a king wishes to marry his daughter, among them. But - again, like Riverbed - there are some stories where the women refuse to give up their agency - or, rather, strive for agency where they had none in the first place. Some of the women in these stories choose a different path from what we would expect - a path that leads to evil in some cases. But evil can be understandable if it's the only way to freedom, to security, to safety. Is it evil when the alternative is to suffer? A woman with power is dangerous, but a woman without it is in danger. In Tangleweed and Brine, the evil, the bad; they are all sympathetic characters we understand. Beauty and the Board and Ash Pale are two such stories where women go to extreme lengths, and find a home in the darker side of morally grey.
'"From her own lips," a courtier proclaims, "she chose her fate."
And isn't that what every woman wants?'

(The Little Gift, p142)
I have to admit that Consume or Be Consumed is probably my favourite, but being a retelling of The Little Mermaid, my most favourite fairy tale, it's not that much of a surprise to me. Though, again, this is another retelling that feels more true. To give up so much, everything you know, and to suffer such pain, to get nothing in return? The mermaid's thoughts in Sullivan's story feel more realistic to me than in the original by Hans Christian Andersen - though I, of course, still adore the tragedy of his tale.

If the stories themselves weren't a draw in their own right, each story is told with the most gorgeous, captivating prose. Even when disturbed to the point of feeling nauseous, I would still revel in the beauty of Sullivan's writing. I also loved Sullivan's use of second person in most of the stories; being put into the shoes of these characters, to have these things happen to you, adds to the credibility and revulsion. I also loved that people of colour featured in some of these stories - outright stated in the text, but also in the gorgeous, delicate, detailed illustrations by Karen Vaughn. And I loved that The Little Gift was a lesbian retelling.

Tangleweed and Brine is just a work of art. Powerful, thought-provoking and gorgeous. It's a beautiful homage to the fairy tales we've all come to love, but also full of the harsh truth of the treatment of women. It would be such a welcome addition to anyone's collection of fairy tale retellings, and one I, myself, will definitely treasure for years to come.

Thank you to Little Island Books & Bounce Marketing for the review copy.

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Published: 7th September 2017
Publisher: Little Island Books
Deirdre Sullivan's Website

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