Book Reviews

A Wild Swan – Michael Cunningham – Book Review

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A Wild Swan And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham – Review by Pat V.

It’s hard to imagine that a retelling of Snow White or Jack and the Beanstalk would hold much interest for an adult reader but Michael Cunningham’s latest collection of short stories, based on the fairy tales we all know, is both entertaining and captivating. Cunningham is probably best known for The Hours for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and which was made into an Oscar winning film starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. Among his other works A Home at the End of the World and Specimen Days were very well received as was his 2014 novel, The Snow Queen, which is set in contemporary New York and isn’t, despite its title, a fairytale, though it was certainly influenced by the Hans Christian Andersen story.

With A Wild Swan and other tales Cunningham bases his stories unapologetically on those of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and W. W. Jacobs among others. The fairy tales, however, are not just simply retold. All are approached obliquely and give us a different view of the stories we know so well. Apart from the ones already mentioned Cunningham reworks the tale of Rumplestilskin, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and W. W. Jacobs’ classic horror story, The Monkey’s Paw, with each of them creating something fresh and imaginative.

The story which gives the collection its title is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Wild Swans, about 12 brothers turned into swans by an evil step-mother but who are saved by the magic spell of their loyal sister. By calling his story, A Wild Swan, Cunningham lets us know that his emphasis will be different and he concentrates here on one of the brothers whose transformation back from swan to prince is not totally successful- his right arm remained a swan’s wing. The prince tries to create the image that he is “a young god…ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing”. However those around him see him as a freak and slowly he comes to believe that himself, spending his nights in bars with other losers, frogs who can’t find women to kiss them and princes who can’t find the comatose princesses they’re meant to revive with a kiss.

The fate of many of Cunningham’s characters is more moving than heroic and he often turns the familiar tales on their head presenting us with a thuggish Hansel and Gretel “pierced and tattooed” who destroy the candy house of a lonely old woman and eventually kill her. Similarly Jack, “not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree”, becomes obsessed with the wealth of the giant on top of the beanstalk, robs and kills him and ends up a playboy and lecher, placating his mother with “limited-edition Murakami Cherry Blossom (handbags) by Louis Vuitton”. Snow White’s story, told entirely through kinky pillow talk with her Prince, shows us that “happy ever after” does not always work out.

Cunningham’s interpretations of the much-loved stories vary from prequels and sequels to mere retellings, and his versions are subtle and poetic, the tone understated and sharp. There is a lot of humour in his tales and a lot of tenderness. The book is beautifully illustrated by Japanese artist, Yuko Shimizu, in a style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. This is a book you will treasure and will want to keep and reread.

Published by Fourth Estate.

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