How to sell me a short story collection: tell me it plays around with fairy tales, throw in some subversion and perhaps a little bit of horror (I’ll choose Grimm over Disney any day of the week). Intan Paramaditha’s collection promises all of these things: a collection of fairy tale-inspired feminist horror stories hailing from Indonesia.
We begin with a retelling of Cinderella, this time told from the point of view of one of her stepsisters. Whilst we can trace old versions of Cinderella from Egypt to China, this one borrows from old European versions of the tale where, desperate to fit into the glass slipper when the Prince comes calling, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit inside that shoe. One by one they are celebrated as the rightful princess, about to be whisked off by the Prince… until he notices the blood pooling at their feet. In Paramaditha’s story, the narrator complains about her ungrateful stepsister, ‘Sin,’ whose lighter skin was more valued by society, who never knew hardship until her father died, whose good looks gave her a privilege she never once acknowledged. Is it any wonder, she asks us, that they punished her insolence by making her clean the house?
There are many thought-provoking stories in this book. A woman working for an advertising agency is told to come up with a campaign for sanitary products that will show “blood as an enemy;” Sumarni is a woman who bottles women’s trauma because they are told they cannot express it; a husband and wife play dangerous games, both vying for the attention of one young man; and the tale of Kuchuk Hanem highlights how travelling Westerners in the 1800s treated other countries’ histories and women as souvenirs to take home. This last tale in particular is an apt representation of fairy tales themselves: patchwork-quilt narratives taken from cultures all over the world, their origins often forgotten or erased.
Throughout this collection is the repeated image of a red door, and it does feel as though we are wandering through a maze of a house, cutting holes in its bloody walls to step from one story into another — as though we are, quite literally, trying to get to the heart of the matter. Characters try to access locked rooms, enter different realms; perhaps the red doors are to signify the birth of new, raw tales battling to be let in.
Something that lets this book down, however, is the way it deals with disfigurement. Both fairy tales and horror stories have a habit of using bodily difference as a marker for evil — a lazy, outdated trope. These stories, whilst commenting on and critiquing how society rewards beauty, also use disfigurement as punishment. When there’s so much subversion going on elsewhere, it’s disappointing to see that this is still rife.
The most successful story in the book is one of the shortest. With its title ‘Vampire,’ it sets up a Red Riding Hood retelling where a colleague, Irwan, pressures our narrator into having a drink after work. “We always knew what would happen between us,” smiles Irwan, sickly-smooth, having invited himself into her house, so sure of both himself and his place in this story. His arrogance is his comeuppance, however, when we discover that he is not the wolf in this scenario.
If you’re a Roald Dahl fan, give this book a go. There’s much to recommend, even if I didn’t fall completely in love with all of the stories. If you’re looking for books that are similar, make sure you seek out Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales, Cassandra Parkin’s New World Fairy Tales, and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. As a thank you, all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of
'The Dreamers' by Karen Thompson Walker, the next book to be reviewed.