Vignette No.7 – Moving House

Moving House

The house is restless. It’s always like this when Mother is away.

It began the night she left. Walking through the house, turning out the lights before I went to bed, I could hear the creaks and sighs in the dark behind me. I was doing everything right, but they knew she wasn’t here. They knew I was alone.

For a few days we held an uneasy truce. It was like they were waiting for her to come back, and when she didn’t…

The rocking chair started it, of course. It’s always hated me, ever since that time when I was eight and scratched it (accidentally!) with scissors – and besides, it’s Mother’s chair down to the bolts. No one else would dare sit on it. When she’s not home I give it as wide a berth as I can when I go through that room, but it’s managed to pinch my toes under its rockers more than once all the same. As I hop away, swearing, it rolls slowly back and forth, shrieking with shrill wooden laughter.

Mother says I just have to be more firm. I say, firmer than your bloody furniture?

Then the linen cupboard joined in, swinging open whenever I turned my back and tipping everything from the shelves onto the ground. My feet tangle in towels every time I walk along the hall. The bookshelves are copycats; soon enough they were spitting out books all over the place, and what’s worse, the carpets started slithering over to cover them up. Since then it’s been a free-for-all. The deck chairs snap shut on my fingers like lawn-dwelling crocodiles. The coffee table skitters around the sitting room, hiding behind armchairs so that it is never there when I want it. Even the ottoman is rebelling. I found it hiding in the cupboard under the kitchen sink this morning, wedged right under the pipes. They are so sneaky – that’s what gets me. Can there be anything more insulting than being outwitted by your own mother’s furniture?

All I’ve got on my side is my bed, which has been mine since I was two and is staunchly loyal, and the library bureau, which is too stately and antique to get involved in antics of any description. That doesn’t mean it likes me, though. I swear it shuffles the rubber bands into the wrong corners when it thinks I’m not looking.

Mother is still in Brazil at that conference on sentient wood, but she phoned last night and promised she’d be home tomorrow.

I’m staying away from the knife drawer until she is.

© Faith Mudge 2012

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Review No.18 – The Kitchen Daughter

The Kitchen Daughter – Jael McHenry

Gallery Books, 2011

Ginny is in her mid-twenties but has never completed her college studies, lived away from home, had friends or lovers of her own. She panics in a crowd or when she is touched by a stranger. Her entire life is governed by the childhood rules set down by her mother. Then her parents die in a freak accident. Hiding in the family kitchen from the oppressive crowd of mourners, Ginny uses her usual coping mechanism of cooking by painstakingly preparing her grandmother’s ribollita. The last thing she expects is to summon up the dead woman’s ghost and the beginning of a cryptic warning: Do not let her. What Ginny is supposed to prevent, she isn’t sure. It is hard enough dealing with her younger sister Amanda, a married mother of two who feels the entire burden of family responsibility has fallen onto her shoulders and is trying to expurgate her grief by getting their parents’ house ready to sell. The only problem is that Ginny is still living there and doesn’t want to leave. Left without the compass of her mother’s advice, struggling to interact with a world that bewilders her, Ginny seeks answers by cooking the food of the dead. But can they tell her what she needs to know…and will they even come?

I forget how I heard about this book. I think it was a reference on Goodreads. However I found it, I’m very glad that I did. Jael McHenry has created a beautifully original story that is heart-warming without being sentimental and a heroine whose narration is both pragmatically matter-of-fact and achingly vulnerable. McHenry’s portrayal of family relationships is consistent and realistic, her cast of characters believably flawed, and I love her idea of summoning up ghosts with the smell of their beloved recipes. It is the sort of thing you half-hope could be true.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.4 – Patient Griselda

I’ve referred to this story before as ‘Patient Grethel’, but apparently my efforts to forget its existence were of some use after all because it’s actually ‘Patient Griselda’, at least in the 1999 edition of Puffin Books’ Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales I have on loan from the library. For classics like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella’, we have the retellings of Charles Perrault to thank, so it’s not like I can completely ignore him, but he’s also to blame for retelling this particular story. If you haven’t heard of it before, let this be the warning you need to avoid it for the rest of your life.

It starts off as many fairy tales do, with a prince who is introduced as ‘youthful and gallant’, his greatest pleasure being in the continued happiness of his people. Or at least 50 % of them. The modern definition of the word gallant is all about courtesy, particularly towards women, but in ‘Patient Grethel’ it would seem Perrault is using a different application of the term, because this prince hates women. Convinced they are all faithless deceivers, he sees every woman as ‘a hypocrite…a cruel enemy whose unbroken ambition was the gain the mastery over whatever unhappy man might surrender to her’. So frail orphans and oppressed widows are okay, but if you’re just a regular woman in this man’s kingdom, watch out. His idea of the perfect wife is someone who will be totally subservient to his wishes without the slightest will of her own. And oh dear, one day while he’s on the hunt, rampaging through the woods after some unfortunate stag, he finds an innocent young sheperdess who offers him directions and a drink of water. She will come to regret that.

Her name is Griselda. She’s pretty and shy, used to living a simple life with her father in the hills, and the prince quickly decides she’s the One. The other girls who have been trying to get his attention start copying this new demure style, hoping to win favour; grandstands and floats are built, ballets and operas are written. The day of the wedding arrives and the prince heads off to propose. Because he hasn’t actually asked her yet. And when he does ask her, his condition is – and I QUOTE – ‘swear that you will never have any other wishes than what I shall desire’. Poor little lovesick Griselda agrees.

Despite her inexperience, she settles into her new role well, displaying homespun wisdom and making herself liked at court. When she gives birth to a beautiful little princess it seems everything couldn’t be more perfect. Her husband, however, relapses into his old misogynistic paranoia, suspecting her of lies and insincerity. His behaviour turns abusive, confining her to her rooms and stripping of the jewels he gave her himself not so long ago. She gives in to his every order, sure it is all just a test to prove her love. When he fails to raise a reaction with imprisonment and humiliation, he comes up with a plan so cruel it actually makes me sick to re-read. He walks in on his wife while she is nursing their baby and tells her that she is such a bad influence that he’s taking the princess away to be raised by somebody else. He isn’t even brave enough to watch when his people come to tear the baby from her mother’s arms. Griselda somehow forgives him for this, broken doormat of a woman that she is, but he can’t seem to resist torturing her. Only days later he goes to her again and says the baby has died. Mistaking what guilt his ugly heart is capable of producing for grief, she then tries to comfort him.

For FIFTEEN YEARS he sticks to this lie, leaving his daughter to be raised by nuns and his wife to grieve over the baby she lost. The princess grows up with her mother’s beauty and her father’s deadly charm, though without that sadistic streak that has totally consumed him. When she is glimpsed by a passing nobleman, it’s love at first sight. Her lover is wealthy, handsome, brave – her father is bound to try and make amends for wrecking her mother’s life by allowing her to be happy, right? Wrong. No, instead the prince announces that he’s marrying again. Marrying his own daughter. You heard me. Not that his poor deluded subjects know she’s his daughter, any more than the princess or her grief-wracked mother. Why is he doing this to everybody, when he knows the truth and has no intention of marrying the girl? Because he’s crazy. Totally, stark raving crazy.

So he breaks three hearts in one blow. He’s very good at that sort of thing by now. He sends Griselda back to her old life as a shepherdess, claiming she’s so ill born that he can’t possibly stay married to her. And what does Griselda do but apologise for making him angry. She hasn’t a clue what she’s done and she’s still feeling sorry for him, sure she’s done something terrible to make her deserve all this – a typical mindset in domestic violence cases, of which this whole story is so staggering an example. Her father is heartbroken at his own fall in stature and it falls to Griselda to be the strong one, insisting they will find peace and rest in their simple cottage. Which they might have done, if the prince could have left her the hell alone. But no, we’re dealing with a full-fledged psychopath here. He summons her back to the palace to attend his new bride-to-be – that is, their daughter. Brow-beaten and oblivious, Griselda obeys. She becomes so protective of her charge that she dredges some grit from somewhere and tells the prince that if he wants to marry this girl, he’ll have to show her more kindness than he ever showed her. The prince, predictably enough, tells her to shut up and do as she’s told.

The day of the prince’s second wedding arrives. In front of his assembled guests, he begins a little speech on how deceptive everybody really is and proves himself to be the ultimate hypocrite when he finally reveals his bride-to-be’s true identity. Griselda almost has a heart attack. All she can do is cry and hold her lost little girl. The princess, meanwhile, realises she’s got her life back. She marries her lover before her father can change his mind again and there’s a huge party in which everybody sweeps the horror story of the past fifteen years under the carpet, holding Griselda up not as a martyr to marital abuse, but ‘a model for women everywhere in the world’.

This story is disturbing on so many levels. Like, the prince survives, completely unpunished. Why didn’t his daughter’s boyfriend do the honorable thing and cut off his head or lock him up or something, like they do to all the other monsters in fairy tales? I would absolutely rather be kidnapped by dragons or ogres than live with someone like that. This is, at least, one of Perrault’s most obscure fairy tales. I was in my early teens when I came across it during a raid on my local library’s folklore and mythology section. Reading to the end in the naïve expectation that the evil prince would get his comeuppance, I was left in a state of dumbfounded outrage. My only comfort, re-reading it for this review, is remembering the immediate reaction of my younger self. That was, essentially, ‘Screw you, prince. I’m going to write my own fairy tales and you are going down’.

Here’s to impatient women everywhere.

Review No.17 – The Ragwitch

The Ragwitch – Garth Nix

Allen & Unwin, 2006

It is just a rag doll, hidden among the feathers and broken shells, but from the moment Julia picks it up she is possessed. Her brother Paul watches on in horror as her stolen body passes through fire into another world and in a moment of blind bravery he follows, stumbling into a kingdom where old magic rules the forests and stories of a terror from the north have been eroded by the passage of time into nothing more than a children’s nightmare. But the North-Queen who once ruled has returned as the Ragwitch to spread that nightmare once more, one from which she does not intend to let the kingdom ever wake. While Julia fights to exist inside the Ragwitch’s poisoned mind, Paul searches desperately for a way to set her free – but what if the only way to save the kingdom is to sacrifice his sister?

I had seen The Ragwitch around before but it was only when I was fortunate enough to meet Nix himself at a recent talk in the State Library of Queensland and heard him talking about his inspirations that I bumped it to the top of my list to see what it was like. First published in 1990, it is one of his earliest works and quite clearly based on the Narnian model, with children stumbling from our world into a magical land in dire peril, but Julia and Paul are quite a different set of siblings from the legendary Pevensies. There’s a darkness in Nix’s work that you won’t find in Narnia. Unlike Lev Grossman’s very adult The Magicians or Neil Gaiman’s deeply disturbing short story The Problem of Susan, however, this is still definitely a children’s book that celebrates the magic of a quest. With so many British and American children’s fantasies out there, I also appreciated the distinctively Australian references, from the Aboriginal midden in which the Ragwitch is discovered to the Water Lord’s great white sharks. This wasn’t a fast read for me – somehow, Nix never is – and it took me a while to invest in the story, but I liked it and hope one day he writes some more about the Patchwork King. That name is just too good not to use again.

Review No.16 – Dealing with Dragons

Dealing with Dragons – Patricia C. Wrede

Magic Carpet Books Harcourt Inc., 2002

There are books you read when you’re little and you love them, but then you get older and can’t quite remember why. You can outgrow them. Then there are books like Margaret Mahy’s The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Alison Uttley’s Rainbow Tales – and Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. If I ever grow out of any of these books, it will be time to look at the path behind me and wonder where on earth I went so wrong.

The kingdom of Linderwall is a traditional sort of place, where princesses learn embroidery instead of Latin and frogs that talk are probably princes under a curse. It is entirely unprepared for Princess Cimorene, who wants to know how to fence and make cherries jubilee. When faced with marriage to a bland young prince hand-picked by her parents, she runs away to live with a dragon and becomes immediately embroiled in a wizardly plot, encountering along the way a witch, a jinn, and frankly more knights than she knows what to do with, none of whom will believe she does not want to be rescued. If anyone is likely to do some rescuing, however, it may well be Cimorene herself…

First published in 1990, Dealing with Dragons – the first book in Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles – has become something of a classic, and deservedly so. I don’t think any girl should grow up without reading this, and generations of boys would probably be more interesting people if they read it too. It cheekily borrows from fairy tales and folk lore alike, including references to The Wizard of Oz, without ever being either obscure or jarringly modernised. Cimorene herself is a marvellous heroine – calm, practical, well-mannered but extremely determined and an all-around useful person to know. Her adventures continue in book two, Searching for Dragons. If you or your kids like Wrede’s style you may also enjoy books by Kaye Umansky, Jean Ure and Lloyd Alexander.

Review No.15 – The Haunting

The Haunting – Margaret Mahy

Puffin Books, 1999

In honour of Book Week I will be posting up a few reviews of children’s books that I’ve lately either discovered or re-read. If I like an author I don’t give a damn about recommended ages and having grown up loving Mahy’s books, I have this year been trying to track down and read the classics of hers that somehow passed me by. It’s a bittersweet discovery now, knowing that Mahy has recently passed away, but in a way that makes it all the more important to me to appreciate all the amazing things she wrote. The Haunting is one of those books that is integral to the Mahy canon.

Barney is happy with his life. The imaginary friends that comforted him during the lonely years after his mother’s death have disappeared, replaced with a loving stepmother and a newly attentive father. But when a great-uncle dies and his dead mother’s family gather together, old secrets begin to surface. Barney is about to be haunted again. And this ghost is only a harbinger of the chaos yet to come.

First published in 1982, The Haunting doesn’t date. The family dynamic is vibrant, chaotic and totally convincing in a story that manages to be creepy and comforting as only Mahy could achieve. It isn’t my favourite of her books – I would have liked it to go deeper, and predictably enough, longer – but it is of the same high quality as everything else she wrote, just as charming and eccentric and utterly readable. In a way, it reminds me of The Tricksters, another novel of hers about ghosts and magicians. I like to think maybe the Scholars and the Carnivals met someday. Magic calls to magic, after all…

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.3 – Tatterhood

My copy of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches is a creased 1986 reprint complete with the very memorable Robin Jacques illustrations and a peculiar hot pink cover. There are twelve stories inside and I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite, but Tatterhood might be on the hypothetical shortlist if I did. It’s a strange story about sisters, witches, identity and the dangers of eating flowers that grow under your bed.

Once upon a time, a royal couple who cannot conceive meet with a kind witch who takes pity on the weeping queen and offers her what must be the all-time most bizarre advice for falling pregnant – to wash in two pails and throw the water from each under the bed to grow two polar-opposite flowers, one beautiful and one ugly. The queen is warned to eat only the beautiful flower, but predictably enough cannot resist and eats both. The witch’s warning is quickly explained; the queen soon gives birth to two daughters, the exquisitely beautiful Berenice and the hideous Tatterhood. The royal parents attempt to lock their ugly daughter in a room alone, but the girl has ideas of her own and as charming Berenice adores her sister there is not much that can be done to separate them.

The sisters are nearly grown when one Christmas Eve a pack of less civically-minded witches arrive to hold a raucous party in the castle itself. The queen has always just endured her uninvited guests, but Tatterhood decides enough is enough. Instructing her mother to lock all the gallery doors, she heads off to do battle with nothing but a wooden spoon. Amazingly, she is winning – but her mother has a history of ignoring advice. A door to the gallery has been left unlocked and Berenice comes into the room to find out what is going on. The one remaining witch steals her beautiful head, replacing it with a calf’s, and flees before she can be stopped.

Tatterhood is furious. She demands a ship and sets off with her disfigured sister to get back Berenice’s head. When they find the witches’ castle, Tatterhood rides out alone on a goat with her wooden spoon, fighting her way to retrieve the beautiful head and returning to give it back to her sister. Understandably loathe to return to her parents’ kingdom, Tatterhood suggests a long voyage and the two sail alone together for three years until they reach the shores of a new country. Its unmarried king is intrigued by the travellers and on being introduced to Berenice, falls instantly in love, so much so he pledges his adult son’s hand to Tatterhood if she will only allow him to marry her sister. The prince has to be threatened with execution before he will agree, but eventually the double marriage takes place. During the procession to church, Tatterhood finally reveals herself to be even lovelier than the beautiful Berenice (and tellingly, her wooden spoon to be a wand). The prince quickly abandons his plans to lock his new wife in a dungeon and the wedding ends in a grand bridal feast.

I love how this Norwegian fairy tale refuses to pit beauty and ugliness against each other as metaphors for good and evil. Tatterhood is hideous because she chooses to be. So what? She is an indomitable fighter and loyal sister. Beautiful Berenice, while not powerful herself, has more perception than anyone else in the story – she is the only one left unsurprised by her sister’s transformation at the wedding, having always seen Tatterhood that way. Nor are all those wicked witches described as ugly – in fact their physical appearances are not described at all in the actual story, and while the illustrations portray most of them as crone archetypes there is one spectacularly pretty one wielding a broomstick, so clearly there’s a solid equal opportunities policy here. And that advice the first, helpful witch gave? The queen flouted it and things turned out okay anyway. I don’t know if there is one other fairy tale I’ve ever read where that’s the case. Life isn’t set in stone. Myself, I’d take that as moral of the story any day. It’s a pity Tatterhood had to turn stunningly attractive at the end in order to win her prince’s affections, but to be honest I don’t think any woman with the option of magic would choose to keep an ‘ashen grey face’ for the rest of her life. And she did pick the prince in the first place. Somehow, you know, I don’t think he was ugly at all.