REVIEW: New World Fairy Tales – Cassandra Parkin

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Author: Cassandra Parkin (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Salt

Genre: Short stories, modern fairy tales, magic realism

In contemporary America, an un-named college student sets out on an obsessive journey of discovery to collect and record the life-stories of total strangers. The interviews that follow have echoes of another, far more famous literary journey, undertaken long ago and in another world.

Drawing on the original, unexpurgated tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, six of their most famous works are re-imagined in the rich and endlessly varied landscapes of contemporary America.

From the glass towers of Manhattan to the remoteness of the Blue Ridge mountains; from the swamps of Louisiana to the jaded glamour of Hollywood, New World Fairy Tales reclaims the fairy tale for the modern adult audience. A haunting blend of romance and realism, these stripped-back narratives of human experience are the perfect read for anyone who has read their child a bedtime fairy story, and wondered who ever said these were stories meant for children.

I picked up this book of fairy tales last year, during Salt’s Just One Book campaign, alongside My Shitty Twenties. It was the cover that caught my eye, in combination with the blurb. The creepy doll made me think this was going to be a slightly gothic, slightly creepy collection of fairy tales, inspired by the Grimms at their darkest. Perhaps a bit like Angela Carter, but less visceral and sexual. Instead, what I got were adaptations of some of the Grimms’ most famous stories, and told in a way that was actually quite uplifting whilst still retaining some of the darkness thematic around them. Yes, some of the stories didn’t end well, or were darker than others (true of the originals too), but they were arranged that the book ended on a positive note.

I’ve spoken before about how I’m not usually suited to short story collections, but I found that this was precisely the right length. I could read it easily, and didn’t feel the short of narrative numbness I sometimes get with collections of short stories. I loved the premise too, of a student going around collecting interviews about urban myths which have cropped up around the USA. It’s a conceit that’s lightly handled, but works really well, and the whole tone is almost reminiscent of Gaiman’s American Gods, a love letter to the American Myth and the American Road story. It has that sort of golden tinge to it that you see in films about road trips, where strange things happen.

Whilst it’s not Angela Carter, there is a subtle magic realism here. Most of the stories rely on people, on co-incidence, and have very little fairy about them, but even those have a strange sense of outside influence that’s a little otherwordly, something which seems too much of a coincidence to be simply that. The mysterious old woman benefactor in the first story, a retelling of Cinderella, the woman from the adaptation of The Three Little Pigs, or the man who trades lives with Jack in the retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, both of them have something a little magical about them which sets the heroes off on their stories.

Parkin is clearly well-acquainted with her source material, and does an incredible job of finding the crux of the story and identifying who the best narrator should be. I appreciate that she has tried to remove the romanticisation and steralisation from these stories, but without going the overly-trodden routes for many of them (Sleeping Beauty is a drug addict! Cinderella marries a guy she doesn’t know!). In fact, she picks a number of stories which are not often adapted for adults – Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs for starters – and does a fantastic job of retaining the structure to keep them recognisable but making them entirely new tales. Interestingly, I think those and Rumpelstiltskin are the darkest three stories in the book. Rumpelstiltskin I enjoyed for it not being told by any of the original cast but by a third party, an observer baffled by the story unfolding in front of her. Jack and the Beanstalk is told by a man claiming to have heard it from someone else, a warning tale of greed and arrogance.

I read this on a lazy, sunny afternoon while relaxing in my garden and it was the absolute perfect material for it. Slightly magical, slightly unearthly, Parkin’s got a fantastic sense of voice and story, and she plays with it beautifully across this set of adaptations. I read a lot of fairy tale adaptations, so the fact that she had done both stories and approaches I had never encountered before really speaks to the originality of her collection. I was particularly taken with the first and last stories, Cinderella and Snow White, but I didn’t feel there was a weak story in there.

If you’re looking for an easy read, something still a little uplifting, and something a little out of the ordinary, I would really recommend this collection. You can buy it directly from Salt’s website, and in doing so you’ll also be helping the UK independent publishing scene and the diversity of UK literature.

Briefly:

  • A brilliant collection of fairy tale adaptations that demonstrates a fluency in the subject matter and a love of the American myth. Tonally and structurally excellent.
  • As someone who struggles with short stories, this was such an easy read in the way it was collected and the length. It’s something I could easily find myself reading again, in the same way children would re-read their books of fairy tales. Parkin has perfectly created a book of fairy tales for adults.
  • While the slightly creepy doll on the cover is a little misleading (or at least it was for me who saw creepy doll and thought “ghost stories”) it does give a sense of the strange not-quite-realness which is threaded throughout the tales.

Rating: 5/5 – I’m very hard to please with short story collections because they simply don’t suit the way I read, but I thought this was quite special.

17 thoughts on “REVIEW: New World Fairy Tales – Cassandra Parkin

  1. nen & jen says:

    I’ve only had one experience with magical realism and that was a Hundred Years of Solitude which was a DNF for me. I’m so keen to give magical realism another try but the thought of picking up that book again…just nope haha. But I love the idea of a short story! I’m going to give this a try 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa's Notebook says:

    I love magical realism, I think it brings fairy tales to life in such an accessble way. It’s also worth remembering that fairy tales were originally intended as life lessons and warnings for children, not the Disney creations they are today. The original Grimm tales were very dark. This sounds wonderful, exactly like something I would love, thank you for sharing! Lisa x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Claire says:

      You’re so right! Although it always makes me laugh because the Grimms actually censored the original stories they collected – they turned all the wicked parents into step parents because they thought no real Good Christian Parent could do such horrible things!

      Like

    • Claire says:

      Hahaha I know that feeling, my list is so long! This was just a nice bite-size book though, which I could finish in an afternoon and then feel pleased with myself for accomplishing it!

      Like

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