Book review: "Kissing the Witch" makes fairy tales even more magical

For me, it’s all about the twist on the familiar, the true story few are privy to that you need to lean in close to hear, or that only the most clever could discern.

My class did this unit in third grade on fractured fairy tales. It stayed with me for life. We’re receptive to those beloved tales. We know their plots and lessons by heart, but when we look at them from a different angle, that’s when they really become magical.

The retold tales in Kissing the Witch are not the heteronormative Disney stories we all know the soundtracks to. Emma Donoghue, best known for best-seller Room, crafted this intricate and beautiful little book that is instantly, irrevocably, forever one of my favorites. In the interlocking tales, which spin backward in time to give us the origin story of another fairy tale heroine introduced in the previous chapter, we may not recognize our princesses or even which story we’re reading right away. Donoghue makes you work for that payoff. But it’s work done gladly, because this book has the most sensual, dreamy prose that brought my hand to my chest more than once.

Anything can happen when Belle’s Beast is a queen in disguise, when a witch’s power is in the myth built around her and when the Evil Queen’s horse was once Rapunzel. Each character tells her own story, with surprising origins and unexpected results, but they only tell us part of their tale. The stories aren’t about those magical happy endings or the lead-up to them, but open a window to an unknown chapter in their lives. Each glimpse of struggle and hope leaves you wanting more, and there’s a reason for it: “There are some tales not for telling, whether because they are too long, too precious, too laughable, too painful, too easy to need telling or too hard to explain. After all, after years and travels my secrets are all I have left to chew on in the night.”

One of the tales that moved me most was one I was unfamiliar with. I’d never heard of “Donkeyskin” which sounds pretty dark on its own, but Donoghue’s retelling is tragic and disturbing. I also loved her less magical but more profound reinvention of “The Little Mermaid.”

I have a thing against writing in my books, but I almost want to reread it (backwards, to get the tales in chronological order) just to highlight the multiple heart-stopping excerpts. Like when Cinderella’s fairy godmother reminisces about the disaster of falling in love: “Keep your heart infinitesimally small and sorrow will never spy it, never plunge, never flap away with your heart in her claws.” Or at the end of the chapter inspired by “Beauty and the Beast”: “And as the years flowed by, some villagers told travelers of a beast and a beauty who lived in the castle and could be seen walking on the battlements, and others told of two beauties, and others, of two beasts.”

I’m so in love with this book that anything I say about it is insufficient, and telling you precisely what I loved about it will keep us here all day and waste precious time you could spend discovering the wonder for yourself.

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