It is rare that the aesthetic of a volume counts towards its overall merit, but in the case of Deirdre Sullivan’s book of feminist fairytales Tangleweed & Brine (2017), an exploration of its carefully organised pages and beautiful illustrations by Karen Vaughan proves as enjoyable as Sullivan’s remarkable prose. Her thirteen tales are divided between “Tangleweed”, stories set in the forest among “the leaves and roots and flowers”, and “Brine”, in which seas, rivers and lakes predominate.
In her stories, Sullivan subverts the work of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson and Walt Disney to craft something of genuine novelty. While remaining true to the bloody and gothic eeriness of the originals, Sullivan places the suffering and triumphs of women front and centre. In the face of domestic and sexual violence, child abuse and traumatic pregnancy, Sullivan’s heroines are often their own saviours, taking comfort in the wisdom and love of maternal ancestors. The prince’s role is displaced by Cinderella’s mother in ‘Slippershod’. The heroines of ‘Ash Pale’ (Snow White) and ‘Beauty and the Board’ follow in the footsteps of their witch mothers, wielding magic mirrors and planchette boards against patriarchal tyranny.
Sullivan’s witches ally themselves with nature. There they find a primordial counterpoint to the ordered worlds of castles and men, and the power to resist them. The witch in ‘You Shall Not Suffer…’ (Hansel and Gretel) transforms into a mouse, a hare and a turtle to benignly feed those who have been abandoned in her forest. The princess in ‘Riverbed’ (Donkeyskin) draws power from the river to defeat her predatory father. All of Sullivan’s female characters are complex and vital, and all have the capacity for love, goodness and, most engagingly, violence. The lines drawn between wicked witch and wronged princess, handsome prince and evil king are deliberately blurred.
Sullivan is fantastically attentive to the power and significance of objects in fairy tales. Food is central to ‘Come Live Here and Be Loved’ (Rapunzel) and ‘You Shall Not Suffer…’ Blood appears in almost every story. Clothing has particular symbolic importance. In classic tales such as Cinderella, beautiful gowns offer escape and self-actualisation. In Tangleweed & Brine, however, physical beauty can confine. It is the wolf pelt in ‘The Woodcutter’s Bride’ and the donkey skin in ‘Riverbed’ that empower their wearers. The female body proves most formidable of all; Ash Pale is “fat with sorcery and anger,” while the mermaid in ‘Consume or Be Consumed’ misses her “whale-thick” form. Food, blood, clothing, shoes and mirrors are the building blocks of classic fairytales, rearranged here to form something material and modern.
Tangleweed & Brine is a stunning book in every way. Dark, deep and thoughtful, it is a collection to be visited again and again.