I love a good fairy tale. We’re all brought up with them. There’s something fascinating about where they come from. What looks innocent on the surface often isn’t, and they change over time to portray different moral tales: Little Red Riding Hood was not just about obeying your parents by never ‘straying from the path,’ but was also a warning to girls about getting into bed with someone they didn’t even know. Fairy tales are not what Disney taught us.
Cassandra Parkin, who lives in Yorkshire, has written a wonderful collection called New World Fairy Tales, winner of the Scott Prize and published by Salt. The book takes six stories from the Brothers Grimm, twists them, puts them in a different outfit and plonks them down in America. Characters find themselves in Manhattan, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hollywood and the swamps of Louisiana. I was intrigued as to why Cassandra decided to set the stories in America, so I asked her, and she said:
“Like Fairyland, America contains all possible spaces and landscapes – mountains and deserts and plains and oceans, great cities and curtain-twitching suburbs and tiny, isolated rural hamlets. It contains many kingdoms, loosely federated, each with their own distinctive culture and autonomous power of legislation. Getting there requires a long journey, and when you arrive at the border, it’s weirdly difficult to actually get in.”
Interestingly, people who read this comment and lived in America said that, to them, the UK seemed like a fairyland. I suppose with fairy tales, it’s all about Otherness.
New World Fairy Tales is set out in a series of interviews: an unnamed college student is on an obsessive journey to collect and record the life stories of total strangers. We begin with Cinderella, named Ella in this case and heroine of a story in which the stepmother finally catches a break and becomes the good guy (I’m not sure what Bettelheim would have to say about that!). We then move on to Jack, who takes on the corporate giant, and later a variation of Snow White in which a beautiful man is thrown out by his stepmother for being gay. I won’t tell you what the other tales are, because it’s a lot of fun guessing which tales the stories represent as you read them.
The language is beautiful, the storytelling devilishly clever, funny and sexy. The voices of each narrator are rich and suited exactly to the tale they are telling. Since it narrates the stories through interviews, the book is a fantastic way of showcasing the oral tradition of fairy tales:
Interview #27: ‘The thing about Private Investigators: our stories belong to other people. We’re voyeurs by nature. We watch Life sashay down the street, ripe and lovely and sinful and sweet, while we lurk in the shadows and pick out the flaws. Tinseltown’s harshest critics are the PIs, turning the icons of our age back into the ordinary flesh and blood they secretly always knew they were.’
Cassandra Parkin spins a very good yarn. This book is, quite simply, the best short story collection I’ve read in a very long time. May it sell many more copies, and live happily ever after.