My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales Edited by Kate Bernheimer is the book I bought myself for Christmas. You could probably tell by now that I am enchanted with fairy tale retellings and this volume is a treasure chest of the fantastic and strange, vaguely familiar stories from childhood remade. Not to mention that title - which would have made me pick up this book no matter what it was about. Lucky for me what lay inside was individually as unique as the title and accompanied with a short explanation of how they came to be written by each author.
My favorite was "Catskin," by Kelly Link, who states that although she borrowed some elements from Donkeyskin and Rapunzel, she wanted to invent her "own fairy tale" about inhabiting a skin, literally and figuratively. There are orphans, a powerful witch, and many, many cats.
"Since witches cannot have children in the usual way---their wombs are full of straw or bricks or stones, and when they give birth, they give birth to rabbits, kittens, tadpoles, houses, silk dresses,...even witches wish to be mothers---the witch had acquired her children by other nmeans: she had stolen or bought them....One girl she had grown like a cyst, upon her thigh. Other children she had made out of things in her garden, or bits of trash that the cats brought her: aluminum foil with strings of chicken fat still crusted to it, broken television sets, cardboard boxes that the neighbors had thrown out."
Another favorite is "The Mermaid in the Tree" by Timothy Schaffert, the first story I read, which was in the middle of the book. Flipping through the table of contents, the title and the incongruous image it conjured beckoned to me. A version of The Little Mermaid, the story is told through the woman the prince marries instead of the mermaid. Set in a world where mermaids are common and treated no better than laboratory animals, this one was easily the most haunting of the stories I read.
"Many mermaids washed up each year on the shore of Mudpuddle Beach, the ocean air too thick for them to breathe, slowly choking them as if they were swallowing, inch by inch, a magician's endless rope of handkerchiefs...often before they were even spotted by a fisherman or a yacht party, before they'd reach the sand castles abandoned on the beach, they'd breathe their last...."
The story with the most memorable first line is "Hansel and Gretel" by Francine Prose: "Tacked to the wall of the barn that served as Lucia de Medici's studio were 144 photographs of the artist having sex with her cat."
While there are multiple variations of the same fairy tales like The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Bluebeard, and Rumpelstilskin, I found that quite a few of the authors were surprisingly fixated on The Wild Swans: in particular, the youngest brother in the original fairy tale who does not quite fully transform back into a human, but instead is left with one swan wing.
I was introduced to some not so well known fairy tales like The Erlking, The Snow Maiden, as well as some from Mexico, Italy, and Japan.
Some stories deviated so far from the original in style and tone that they didn't quite work for me. Too stylized, too literary, and not enough magic.
Overall, however, I was delighted with this new addition to my fairy tale collection, which auspiciously enough, is dedicated to Angela Carter.
Oh, and the title comes from Alissa Nutting's retelling of The Juniper Tree, "The Brother and the Bird," and yes, it does describe exactly what happens in the plot.