Of witches and mermaids

Book review: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)

Deirdre Sullivan.

Deirdre Sullivan.

JUST PICKING up Deirdre Sullivan's Tangleweed and Brine is a pleasure. There is a tactile joy in holding it and when opened, wandering through its pages, enjoying the design and wonderful illustrations by Karen Vaughan.

The 13 stories in the book are based on 13 classic fairy tales, seven of which are Tangled Tales Of Earth –Tangleweed - and six are 'Salty Tales Of Water – Brine. However the blurb at the back suggests these are far from our idea of the traditional fairy tale. These are, "tales of blood and intrigue, betrayal and enchantment, not for the faint hearted or damsels in distress". The stories “challenge us to rethink what the destinies of young women were in traditional fairy tales”.

There is an underlying theme of violence and cruelty against women inherent in the stories. The first story, based on Cinderella, does not quite finish with the prince and heroine living happy ever after: “Unremembered colours, rancid tongues that slaver but was clean. Well-met dangers, safety of a little worried maiden, hurry, hurry. Hoods are funny things. Mostly dark evoking executioners. Eyelid flicker. Wet salt upon fur."

Sullivan’s prose has the same dark, powerful, intensity throughout the book, an intensity which heightens the sense of foreboding throughout the stories, and greatly enhanced by the superb writing.

As the book is published by Little Island it is almost certainly aimed at a young adult audience, it has to be said that it comes with a health warning. In fact, some adults would find the content perturbing, as Sullivan pulls no punches in her version of the stories. As with the first story neither 'Once Upon A Time' nor 'Happy Ever After' comes into the narrative in any of the stories. The hero victim of these stories is the young female adult in the uncaring world of today.

The subjugation of woman, specifically young adult women is crystallised in 'Doing Well' (The Frog Princess ); “He may clamber upon your lap. This will leave a stain that’s shaped like he is. You are to smile, to listen to him. Your body may begin to respond with panic. Force this far away, and if you cannot quell it all entirely, pretend arousal. This will be believed. He is a prince."

Tangleweed and Brine has the makings of a modern classic and Sullivan may carry the dubious mantle of being a prophet in her own time. Hugely poetic, at times visceral, the narrative voice is powerful, unrelenting, and always energetic. Using the genre of the classic fairy tale, it is an anguished appeal by the young female adult for love, understanding, and empathy from a uncaring brutal world. It is a book to be taken seriously.


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