Friday, 2 October 2020

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Review: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan on a black background with white and grey polka dots in circle patterns.

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Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan


Published: 1st October 2020 | Publisher: Little Island Books | Cover Designer and Illustrator: Karen Vaughan | Source: Review Copy
Deirdre Sullivan on Twitter

A dark, feminist retelling of the favourite Irish fairytale The Children of Lir told in Sullivan's hypnotic prose. Aife marries Lir, a king with four children by his previous wife. Jealous of his affection for his children, the witch Aife turns them into swans for 900 years. Retold through the voice of Aife, Savage Her Reply is unsettling and dark, feminist and fierce, yet nuanced in its exploration of the guilt of a complex character. Voiced in Sullivan's trademark rich, lyrical prose as developed in Tangleweed and Brine - the multiple award-winner which established Sullivan as the queen of witchy YA. Another dark & witchy feminist fairytale from the author of Tangleweed and Brine From Goodreads.

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I was sent this review copy for free by Little Island Books / Nina Douglas PR for the purposes of providing an honest review.


Having adored Tangleweed and Brine so much, when I discovered Deirdre Sullivan had written another retelling earlier this year, Savage Her Reply, I had been desperate to read it. While I was expecting something beautiful, Savage Her Reply completely surpassed my expectations.

Savage Her Reply is a retelling of well loved Irish legend The Children of Lir, but from the perspective of Aífe, the evil, jealous witch of a stepmother who turns Lir's beloved children into swans for 900 years. Except in Savage Her Reply, it's not quite so simple. Because Aífe was more than just a jealous wife and stepmother, she was a young woman who spent the majority of her life before she was cursed as a pawn, a tool to be used, in the hands of men. She was a woman who wanted to be loved, wanted to belong, wanted a home. A woman who was - and is - suffering, and in so much pain, she lashed out and did the unforgivable - but had the unforgivable not already been done to her?

'I wanted to be heard and loved.
I wanted to be favoured.
And I wasn't.' (p27)

Aífe is telling us her story from the present day. Because being cursed and transformed into a demon of the air, she will never die. She's still alive, but she's fading. Her mind is slipping from her, becoming something more animal, and so she's telling her story while she still can, while she can still grasp it. Because there is a story to tell. The one that's been told? It's not the full story; it's not the whole truth, or even mostly the truth - not exactly. But 'if you tell a story often enough, it becomes the thing that's written down.' (p68) So now she's correcting the story, telling her side. She holds nothing back, but gives us the truth.

Taken along with her sisters from her parents as a young child to the sídh of High King Bodhbh the Red as his foster daughters, Aífe's life was never her own. While he wasn't unkind, he wasn't a loving father either - because they weren't his daughters, they were his tools. Aífe had a gift for making herself unseen and unheard, and was able to report things his people said back to Bodhbh. But more than that , they were bargaining chips. Aífe and her sisters loved each other fiercely, all they had was each other. Until Aébh, her older sister, is married off to Lir. King of his own sídh, Lir had been furious he wasn't voted in as High King himself, and so after his previous wife dies, he is given Aébh as a way to smooth things over between him and Bodhbh. First the sisters had been taken from their parents, now they were forced apart. And when Aébh dies whilst giving birth to her second set of twins, Aífe is given to Lir as a replacement. And despite herself - her heart broken over the death of her sister, and loathing Lir so with all of her being - she falls for the pretty lies he tells her, and she falls in love, believing she is loved just the same. Finally, at last, someone who loves her, a place to belong. She tries and she tries to be the most perfect wife, to please him, impress him, to keep him loving her, but it's never enough. He never loved her. 

'I am seeking something like the truth. A truth, at least my truth. And I don't want to daub Lir's name with mud to show you how I shine. I am not a shining creature. I am an ugly thing and part of me has always been an ugly thing. A sneak. A child who liked attention, power. A woman who looked jealously at love that wasn't for her and resented it.
I thought, or hoped, that joy was possible for me, for us.
That I could make him mine.
That time and want and love would be enough.' (p69)

Again, she is just a tool; a womb to be filled, a mother to his children - children he adores. She cannot take it. In the depths of despair, she stops looking after herself. She goes to her room, and doesn't leave for a year. But when she emerges, she is furious; she's had enough, and Lir will pay.

'"Lir will say that I have lost my wits, and perhaps I have. Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me, I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me."
"Was it so very bad to be our daughter?" [Bodhbh] asked me.
"I would not know," I said.' (p122)

While Savage Her Reply is so beautifully written, lyrical and gorgeous, it's not an easy read. It's hard to be with Aífe, as she tells us her story - to feel her pain and her anger, her overwhelming regret and shame for what she's done. But I was absolutely gripped. I was so angry for her! Her story is just rage-inducing, and she suffers time and time again. Yes, she did something terrible and awful, but I completely understand why, and though it changes nothing, she has been wracked with guilt from the moment she turned those innocent children - the children of her beloved sister - into swans. So much so, that she visited the swans when she could, poking at a wound of her own making, but needing to know if they were ok - as ok as they could be, how they were faring, what they're lives were like. And to be a witness to the suffering that she herself brought upon them. It's not much, but she can give them this. Until they become aware of her presence and she is forced away.

I absolutely loved the structure of this story. As well as giving us Aífe's story, Sullivan also rewrites the original fairy tale-legend as it's known, telling us the scéal (story) in pieces, told chronilogically alongside Aífe's. Sullivan shows those of us who aren't familiar with the original the way the story normally plays out, but also how Aífe's story differs from the one that's been told, the half-truths and the outright lies that have been told and retold again over the centuries. The story that showed certain people in a particular light - a sympathetic light, the wronged and betrayed - and a light that shone in black and white, with none of the shades of grey. Sullivan has also given Aífe a voice through Ogham calligrams - poems structured in the shapes of Ogham runes, an ancient Irish alphabet - and they're just so gorgeous and cut right to the bone. Sullivan just has an incredible way with words, whether prose or poetry, and manages to get right to the heart of something in so few words. As you can see in the photo above, my copy has numerous bookmark tabs, marking lines and passages that spoke to me; a turn of phrase beautifully worded, or an idea or thought that resonated with me. And again, with beautiful illustrations from Karen Vaughan, who illustrated Tangleweed and Brine; the main illustration at the beginning of Aífe transforming the children into swans is simply exquisite, and the beautiful illustrations that accompany the scéal of leaves transforming, mor each time, into feathers, delicate and elegant.

Savage Her Reply is a complete work of art. It's gorgeous and it's heart-wrenching, and it's just so perfect. It's painful and it's stunning, and one will stay with me for a very long time. Sullivan is an expert storyteller, and while I'll read whatever she rights, I do so hope this isn't the last retelling she graces us with. Absolutely cannot recommend Savage Her Reply enough. 

'We are ourselves, and we are also stories people tell.' (p15)
'The stories that we hear when we are children shape us, don't they? Some more than most.' (p34)
'Stories can be weapons, persuading people of things about themselves, about each other.' (p19) 
'You cannot trust a story.
Even mine.
Remember that.
Be careful.' (p69)

Thank you to Little Island Books and Nina Douglas PR for the review copy.

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Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

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What are some of your favourite retellings from the villain's perspective? Have you read many retellings of lesser-known fairy tales, myths, and legends? Will you be picking up Savage Her Reply? If you've read it already, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!


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