Skip to main content
review: fiction

Fairy tales are by definition reiterations, transformed by each successive teller, manipulated by memory and subconscious, what sharpness or what blur they bring. There is no expectation of verisimilitude in fairyland. The fairy tale expects the reader simply to believe. It is a true form in this sense; it does exactly what realism does - it tells a story - except it doesn't pretend to be real.

Kate Bernheimer teaches at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette and, as well as being a novelist and founder-editor of The Fairy Tale Review, is the editor of this fine anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.

Bernheimer has curated 40 fairy tales and fairy tale-esque stories. Celebrity writers include Lydia Millet, Aimee Bender, John Updike, Chris Adrian, Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham and Francine Prose.

Star-studded, indeed.

Perhaps it can be said all writers are made of fairy dust, their beginnings located in the nursery, in those first stories, in the fairy tales collated by Andrew Lang, those strange imaginings by Hans Christian Andersen or in the Grimm Brothers stories. Or the Norse myths, or the Greek legends or in the Persian epic the Shahnameh or - perhaps it does not matter what strange world was created by whom. What matters is that the seed of story was planted. That another world existed into which one might go and not be oneself if only for the length of time it took to read about it. And be moved, and be transformed.

This anthology is therefore essentially about transformation, each story an intimacy between the writer and a memory of a fairy tale. Where the individual pieces are least successful, the resonance remains there. Where they are most successful, the image created by this intimacy germinates in the reader. It is tricky to translate an existing story into one's own unique space and still have it locate universally, especially when the existing story is already known by each reader. The job is to transcend the existing story, but also maintain it. And there are some brilliant examples of just this in this anthology.

In Joy Williams's Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child, Baba Iaga, in her shifty chicken-footed house, meets John Audubon, who kills and mounts her beautiful Pelican Child in order to more easily draw a portrait. The trauma relocates from the traditional abandoned children motif to the specificity of Audubon's cruelty. Baba Iaga's dog and cat have borne witness to this awful killing, and when they are asked by her if they "wish to become human beings," the horrified reader can only wish to be enchanted out of her own body, released from this cruel human identity, as Williams imagines it.

In Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's I'm Here, Olga, frustrated in middle age, decides to visit her old landlady in the country: "Get out of here, Olga," and later, " 'I'm telling you what happened,' she said now. 'I died.' " If fairyland is anywhere, it is in the place where death, and its unbinding from reality, resides.

Death and looming disaster are lovingly sprinkled all through this anthology; I've always wondered why people think that these stories are for children. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum mingles her fairy tale in what might just be the perfect contemporary setting: a Waldorf Winter Fair, where gnomes are charmingly anticipated. How sinister, then, that in The Erlking (based on a Goethe poem), the enchantment of a perfect education is just that: the dark interloper, as true as a wood sprite only much more oppositional.

Jim Shepard's Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay is (along with John Updike's Bluebeard in Ireland) is as grittily realistic as this anthology gets: the story of a boy born during an earthquake, orphaned during a tsunami and, now adult, living always on a fault line. About to undergo a vasectomy (unbeknownst to his wife and in spite of the fact she desperately wants another child), he recounts, "My wife's goal-oriented. Sometimes I can see on her face her To Do list when she looks at me. It makes me think she doesn't want me anymore, and the idea is so paralyzing and maddening that I lose track of myself …"

The template for this story, Jump Into My Sack, is in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, but Shepard's debt is in kind, not substance. In his short afterword, he writes how he was well into his story before he realized that both it and the tale he had read years earlier revolve around "the notion of one's self as already too hopelessly damaged to be fully saved by miraculous good fortune." This realization provides, I think, the magic key to understanding how it is that a fairy tale insinuates itself.

As a curated anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is an opportunity to sample work of some very fine (mostly) living (mostly, but not exclusively) American writers as they grapple with this insinuation, and the way and form individual tales have taken root and thrived in each talented recipient. But it is also, perhaps more importantly, a wondrous display of excellent writing, flamboyant at times, subdued and dark at times, but always strange. And strange is good.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner are best understood via the old stories. She teaches creative writing through the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, and online through The New York Times.