The trouble with fairy tales is that they are too happy. They all end with everyone getting what they deserve, both the good protagonists and their evil enemies. That’s why many grownups at some point stop reading fairy tales and watching cartoons based on these stories. They are too unrealistic, optimistic and potentially dangerous – could soften our defense mechanisms.
Hence, Michael Cunningham’s “A Wild Swan” – a collection of ten stories based on well-known fairy tales, but much different in that each of these stories has a dark, morbid twist that turns the “fairy tale” into a nightmarish story ringing truer that its original. Some stories are closer to the tale they’re based on and almost feel like they are retold anew (except there’s always a twist that makes it quite distinct), and some are completely “disfigured”, with clues to the fairy tale that inspired it. For example, if we took out the first and the last page of the story titled “Beasts”, we’d pretty much have the original plot told in a modern language, but with the introduction and the ending changed, we get a story about women who seek damaged, broken men for numerous reasons (desire to fix them?), women who wonder why men think its kindness they want rather than crudeness, and we also get a glimpse of those superficially beautiful people who hide beasts within, we see how they operate and perhaps many of us identify with the experience.
Then there’s the story titled “Crazy Old Lady” that takes one character from “Hansel and Gretel” – the witch – and creates a whole new “fairy tale” around the motivations of that one sad, lonely, devastatingly optimistic woman who goes through life trying to lure company, but no one ever comes her way… until the very end, when she makes a house out of candy, and spends her final days pretending she got what she wanted.
Each story revolves around lonely characters, broken relationships that couples are trying to mend, poor families that experience greed (or just a normal reaction to the possibility of a better life?) and its consequences, and terror that follows their choices in life. And though hardly any story in this collection has a happy ending, grownups (at least this one writing these lines) reads on with enchantment, because that is the power of Cunningham’s combination of beautiful descriptions, poetically expressed sentiments (of the characters), wry humor and merciless conclusions.
What I especially like about the book is Cunningham’s style: his resolute story telling without dwelling on unnecessary details, perfect timing and excellent command of the narrative, dialogues, descriptions of the character’s motivations, and especially his experimentation with point of view. There are a few stories told from the “you” perspective, a “trick” that brings us in deeper into the story, making us the “doer” whether we like it or not. It’s a great way to involve the reader, rather than letting them read from a safe distance.
This is the first book I read by Michael Cunningham; I have a feeling it won’t be the last.