REVIEW: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

Kissing the Witch-artist unknown

Till she came it was all cold.

As I have previously said, I am not brilliant at reading short story collections. This collection neatly circumvented my anxiety relating to what order I’m supposed to read them in by linking each story to the next one so that, throughout the book, I was being gently drawn backwards through time. It was like reading a delicate piece of crochet; each story (loop) could be read alone, but together they were dazzling.

As it said on the blurb, these are old tales in new skins; thirteen fairytales re-imagined in the context of women’s relationships with each other. Some of them were instantly recognisable; Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, the Snow Queen. Some of them are more obscure, and some of them I never recognised. Interestingly, none of the characters ever had names (which made the version of Rumpelstilskin very interesting); it was beguiling.

Emma Donoghue writes with beautifully lucid prose. Some of the stories are barely three pages long, and each story has a subtly different voice that allows the reader to slip closer to the new character. The stories are related to each other by a page in-between them outlining who the next story is about; one of them reads “Another summer in the rose garden I asked, Who were you before you chose a mask over a crown? And she said, Will I tell you my own story? It is the tale of an apple.”

Fairytales are wonderful; deep in a way that novels rarely achieve, and viscerally simple. Most of them, however, are also old. The characters can seem distant and hard to relate to. This collection does a wonderful job of reimagining, of reshaping the tales, allowing romance between women while retaining the darkness and simplicity that is the essence of fairytales.

The imagery is, for the most part, stark. There are no unnecessary details. There are events in the stories that remain unexplained and mysterious. Gaps are left for the reader to fill with their own imagination, and the structure of the stories means that reading feels almost like sinking as the characters are laced together and rent apart, and we spiral further into this strange, dazzling world that Emma Donoghue has spun from separate sources.

We are taken backwards through twists and romances, loves, friendships and betrayals until we finally reach the story of the witch who was kissed, and every story along the way is delightful. This collection is a treasure, filled with shadows and glimmers of light. Emma Donoghue is a captivating writer, and this slim book would be a wonderful addition to any library.

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