Book Review – The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter has written and published a great deal of stories in the ‘reloaded fairytale’ genre in recent years, many of which are collected in this volume from Ticonderoga and also in Sourdough from Tartarus Press. The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales won the Aurealis Award in 2010 for Best Collection, and it’s not hard to see why. Slatter reworks a host of traditional fairytales, many of which will be familiar to all but some which are more obscure, putting a fresh, feminist slant on these already macabre offerings.
“Bluebeard” is told from the perspective of Lily, the daughter of the girlfriend of a wealthy banker, Davide. Lily isn’t impressed with her mother’s subordination to Davide, and as it turns out they’re all in more danger than they first realise. There’s a locked room hiding a nasty secret, a devilish mother, and no Prince Charming required to save the day. “Bluebeard” cleverly inverts the premise of this familiar fairytale, leaving the reader scrambling to discover the source of the murders.
“The Jacaranda Wife” is an Australian version of the Selkie myths, in which James Willoughby finds a white-skinned, violet-eyed woman asleep under the jacaranda tree in his garden. Set in the 1840s, this story sees James all too happy to take this strange, mute woman for his wife, despite the warnings of the Indigenous workers on his farmstead. Jealous of his new wife’s affinity for the jacaranda tree, and fearful that she will disappear back into it, James orders all such trees in the area cut down, but one stubborn tree remains standing.
“Red Skein” reworks the ubiquitous Red Riding Hood myth, empowering Matilda by making her more than capable of defending herself in the forest. The story also focuses on the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother, who is here decidedly not enfeebled. Similarly, “The Little Match Girl” empowers the ordinarily pathetic match girl from Hans Christian Andersen’s story by making her fully grown and with the ability to choose her own end.
“The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You” is one of the few contemporary tales in The Girl With No Hands and, initially at least, it is also written in one of the lightest tones in the volume. After a string of abusive relationships, Melanie bites the bullet and orders a EZ-Boy, an “ever-faithful Zombie Boyfriend” (p140). The zombie, whom she calls Billy, is perfectly docile, all too happy to clean Melanie’s house during the day and, as she boasts, “never complains about, y’know, eating at the Y” (p 142). Billy’s passivity and his failure to interpret ambiguous instructions turn Melanie from abused to abuser, and that’s before the appearance of an EZ-Girl.
“Light as Mist, Heavy As Hope” is a retelling of Rumplestiltzkin. In it, Alice is brought to the attention of an impoverished king when her father boasts of her skill in weaving straw into gold. Alice is also in danger of being molested by her widowed father, due to her resemblance to her mother. In the castle, the girl is forced to attempt the impossible task under threat of strangulation, but a mysterious helper comes to her rescue. On the first two nights, Alice is able to pay the extortionist with her mother’s jewellery, but on the third, only her as-yet unconceived child will suffice. Alice is forced to desecrate her mother’s grave to escape this unwanted fate.
The title story, “The Girl With No Hands”, is a particularly gruesome yarn in which the greedy Miller trades “whatever is sitting in [his] backyard” (p180) with the Devil in exchange for unimaginable wealth. Unfortunately, the Miller’s finds his daughter, Madchen, in the backyard when he returns home, and thus begins a rapid fall from grace for all concerned. Madchen’s mother, Hilde, vainly tries to stop her daughter from becoming the Devil’s bride, and the odious Miller chops off the girl’s hands at the Devil’s request in response. Madchen flees and eventually marries a King, but her new-found happiness is again imperilled by the Devil’s trickery.
The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales is a collection of intelligent, lusciously-written fairytales with modern sensibilities. In these pages, our heroines almost never bow before the might of their often-boorish fathers and husbands, and the resulting fare makes for highly entertaining reading.