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A WILD SWAN by Michael Cunningham


And Other Tales

by Michael Cunningham ; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-374-29025-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An assortment of fairy tales revised and thrust into the present day.

Cunningham (The Hours, 1998; By Nightfall, 2010, etc.) lightly touched on folklore for allegorical purposes in his 2014 novel, The Snow Queen, but here he approaches the genre head-on: these stories are each inspired by a particular tale, usually updated to add a dose of grown-up realism to its relationships. “Poisoned,” for instance, turns “Snow White” into a piece of flash fiction about pillow-talk role-playing, while “Steadfast; Tin” is a rewrite of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” that opens at a frat party. Cunningham clearly admires these stories for their flexibility, the way they can, with a twist or two, make room for mature observations about love and sex: his take on “Hansel and Gretel,” “Crazy Old Lady,” reimagines the witch as a much-married woman exiled for her sexual appetites, “a goddess…of carnal knowingness.” And in “Beasts,” he considers whether it isn’t so much the inner prince but outer animal that Beauty admires: “She wondered to herself why so many men seemed to think meekness was what won women’s hearts.” To that end, Cunningham embraces dark and sometimes-bloody characteristics of these stories as rendered most famously in the Grimm Brothers, but he also writes more open-heartedly about them, as in “A Monkey’s Paw,” which extends the original story (which ends with a couple wishing their zombified resurrected son to disappear) to a somber but compassionate conclusion. These rewrites are all elegantly told and nicely supplemented by illustrations by Shimizu, who gives each story a one-panel image that evokes Aubrey Beardsley in its detail and surrealistic splendor. But between the stories' brevity and borrowed plots, this collection also feels like a busman’s holiday for Cunningham, who thrives in more expansive settings.

A likable and occasionally provocative set of variations on kid-lit themes.