Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge (Candlewick Press)
Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is a collection of classic fairy tales retold in contemporary language, often with a modern setting, all in poetic form.
In writing both elegant and punchy, the stories explore relationships, the body, sex, desire, violence, and prejudice. It’s both funny and tragic, usually twisted, and sometimes perfect.
Not for children though.
It might be a collection of fairy tales complete with illustrations (all stark, eerie silhouettes), but I wouldn’t give this to a kid. Teenagers maybe. There’s nothing explicit, but there are themes and innuendo that would be better appreciated by adults. Take the ending of “Bluebeard” for example:
“She knows her life is on the line but, believe it or not, she’s never been so excited! Her husband’s a serial killer, and her bodice is wet with tears, but there’s a chance her brothers will show up like winning lottery numbers. Which does she want more — her hair wound in the maniac’s hands and her white white throat bared, or the sound of boots on the marble stairs?”
That should give you an impression of what dark, sensuous stories these are, full of taboo desires. Hansel and Gretal have a semi-incestuous relationship and a taste for revenge. There’s an ogre wants to eat her own children. Cinderella’s stepsisters tell their own sad story:
“Ella is married and happy. Our Ever After is silence, darkness, and bitterness. We have names, by the way. She’s Sarah and I’m Kathy. We were always close. As girls we lay in bed kissing and pretending one of us was the prince. We were practicing for happiness.”
One particularly unsettling story is “The Princess and the Pea”, where Koertge considers what life might be like for a woman with such a fragile body:
“Have you seen the prince? My God, his hands are big as anvils. Do you know what that would do to me? Do you? I see him ogling my breasts and I think, “If you want one of them black and the other one blue, if those are your favorite colors or something, go ahead and grope. Don’t let the screaming bother you.”
Not surprisingly, few of Koertge’s fairy tales have happy endings. Marriage isn’t as blissful as imagined, and even if it is, there’s often a longing for the past. The Beast is happy with Beauty, but remembers his past: “With a sigh, sometimes, I brush my perfect teeth and remember when they were fangs.”
Rapunzel, with more than a touch of vanity, is disappointed with her brutally masculine prince:
“His kisses were like blows. His cheeks sanded down my mother-of-pearl skin and the Plow Horse Game skinned my knees. I admit he made me feel real. I was vapor, otherwise, only collecting into the form of a girl when the witch called and I tugged and she climbed and she was the oven and I was the bread.
Now that it’s all over, I suppose I’m happy. I love my daughter. But the prince is moody and thinks of himself. While the witch thought only of me.”
Koertge constantly subverts conventions and expectations. Villains and monsters are portrayed with sympathy, while heroes are often revealed to be selfish, manipulative, or just average imperfect human beings.
It’s not all dark and disturbing though. There’s humour too, as in the reaction of the princess who kisses the toad:
“OMG. He’s a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint, a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He’s the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He’s the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
Just look at those tights!”
I also loved Red Riding Hood as a contemporary teenager, telling her mom what happened when she met the wolf:
“So first he’s all into my pretty this and that, like I haven’t heard it all before. What? Where did I hear that all before? At parties. What planet do you live on?”
And what she thought when she found out that the wolf had swallowed her grandmother whole:
“And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like. What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn’t want to. It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom. How old are you, anyway?”
There are a few stories that I thought were just ok, but this book still went straight into my ranks of best short fiction. I need to buy a print copy because it’s the kind of thing I like to pick up on a whim. I’d open it at random and end up curled on the couch reading the whole delightful thing.
Read more of Lauren’s reviews on her blog.
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