Posts Tagged ‘fairy tale’



This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.


Angela Carter is just bloody brilliant!

I mean bloody brilliant!

Being just a man, lacking in x-chromosomes, I’m sure I’m missing much of her political feminist subtlety but as a writer she blows me away! The balance she holds between the real, the fantastical and the macabre is fantastic.

Take this first eponymous tale in the collection: a re-imagined and post-feminist retelling of Bluebeard. The original tale is broadly retained: an innocent wife marries a sinister bestial man; she is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys with the invitation to use any of them as she wished save for one; the forbidden key is – inevitably – used and the husband returns unexpectedly.

The journey from Paris to the husband’s castle is a maelstrom of Freudian phalluses in the

“great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night”

and the movement from “girlhood” to womanhood as the narrator

“ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.”

. And the husband – the marquis – is gloriously bestially described too! His beard is no longer blue but still as full and luxurious a beard as the most yokel of Devonian farmers: a “mane” which tickles and bristles on the “leonine shape of his head”. In many ways, Carter elides the image if Bluebeard with that of Beauty and the Beast.

This is clearly a tale of a coming-of-age: the discovery of the wife’s capacity for sensuality corresponds with her discovery of the bloody chamber in which the Marquis’ past wives are disposed of which itself is emblematic of the start of menstruation.

What appeals to me most in Carter’s writing is the sensuousness of her prose: the Marquis is masked by

a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices” which “made me think of my father”

and the wife’s nightdress

“slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders, supple as a garment of heavy water and now teasingly caressed me, egregious, insinuating, nudging between my thighs”

and the Marquis’ “fairy castle” with the

“faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing in its attics, the casements opening on to the ocean, cut off by tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place”


This is some of the most sensuous and sensual language that I have ever come across!

The biggest alteration made to the original story is the replacement of the wife’s brothers coming to rescue her from the Marquis with a wonderful depiction of her mother performing the same role. The “eagle-featured” mother is practically the personification of the word redoubtable: she had

“gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love” in loving a soldier who died; and had “outfaced a junkful of Chibese pirates; nursed a village through a visitation of the plague; and shot a man-eating tiger.”

It is utterly reasonable that she should be the one to come charging across the causeway to her daughter’s rescue, a “wild thing” with

“her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white name, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist”

as the family of women bond against the predatory male “beast”.

As a man, my gender’s representation is a tad skewed: I can chose between a somewhat romanticised and definitely absent soldier-father; a monstrous and bestial husband; or a good-natured and blind piano tuner.

Not the most inspiring choice!

But with Carter, you kind of know what you’re getting as a man!



There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.


Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!