How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer
Coffee House Press, 2014; 167 pp
Reviewed by Elise Matthews
I wanted to love Kate Bernheimer’s new collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales. I'm a huge fan of the lit mag she edits, Fairy Tale Review. In addition to the magazine, which is published once a year, Bernheimer has edited multiple anthologies that focus on fairy tales. And some of her other fairy tale books—both novels and story collections—have been sitting on my as-soon-as-I-finish-school shelf for too long. But I couldn't put her off any longer when I got hold of this collection. The influence of the fairy tale tradition on her work is immediately apparent in these stories, the eerie, fantastical tone unmistakable. From the first page, I was immediately reminded of the Hans Christian Anderson and Grimms fairy tales I read and loved as a child.
This collection, nine modern fairy tales in all, starts slowly and a bit uncertainly as if the narrators aren't quite sure of the stories they're telling, like they don't quite know the point. Some of the stories are linked, while others seem to stand alone, and this makes the collection feel less cohesive. The book is opaque in places, especially in the pages that appear between the stories. Before and after each story is a page with a small illustration and text that usually begins with "I'm yours." Some of these fill up the page with text; others are short:
You do not know me.
You never will.
These pages distract more than they add to the overall experience of the collection because it's unclear how they fit into the organization of the book or how, together, they might tell their own story.
The early stories are quick and underdeveloped, which is a shame because there are so many vibrant images and breaths of inspiration throughout. Bernheimer nails the final two stories, though, and reminds us why she is reigning queen of the modern fairy tale. Unfortunately, devoted readers will have already read one of these, "The Girl with the Talking Shadow," in xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths. But it's worth another read anyway. In this dark, haunting story, the narrator's voice is strong and clear; she knows the story she's telling well.
"Babes in the Woods" is similarly elegiac, as it deals with the fears that go along with becoming a parent unwillingly, of being a step-parent, of being trapped with no escape. And also how, in all of that terror, love can happen, but how that love isn't always enough in the face of fear. But also how love can outlast the fear, even if the fear ruins things for a while. There is so much life and feeling and depth and beauty and ugliness in this story.
The power of these final stories makes the weak start—the unfinished feel of the stories, the voids begging to be filled—all the more surprising, especially when taken with all of Bernheimer's previous work.