The Sappho’s Fables series takes well-known, beloved fairy tales and retells them from a lesbian perspective. Volume One contains the first three novellas in the series: SEVEN (Snow White), BRAIDED (Rapunzel) and CRUMBS (Hansel and Gretel), compiled together in an enchanting omnibus edition.
I’ve previously reviewed and quite liked, despite its flaws, Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife, a lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth, so I was quite interested in trying out more of her (and her wife’s) writing. The novellas are available separately, but an omnibus is obviously more convenient and–well–cheaper, though I do think the individual novellas have much better covers.
Yes, it’s self-published. We can all deal. Sarah Diemer seems fairly successful at it, too.
When our relationship began, one of the deepest things we had in common was our obsession with fairy tales. To help us cope with the pain of a long-distance relationship, we retold our favorite fairy tales as gifts to one another, reclaiming them from a lesbian point of view. These were the stories we had wished for growing up, as we read and reread our worn, beloved volumes, always seeking someone like us, always failing to find her. Telling each other these changed fairy tales gave us hope that someday we would be able to be together. [...] We no longer live in a world where fairy tales are the straight person’s privilege, so it only makes sense that the tales begin to reflect the deeper truths of our culture, as they were meant to do so long ago.
No more, I think, needs to be said.
On to the novellas. The prose is more controlled and not as prone to overwrought verbiage as it was in The Dark Wife in Braided, and Jennifer Diemer shows herself to be a very competent author in Seven, respectively a retelling of Rapunzel and Snow White. Both writers have an intense focus on women–for all stories the principles are ladies, more than just the protagonist and her love interest. Seven mixes Snow White and Bluebeard, turning the seven dwarves motif into six brides dead at the hand of Lexander, the Bluebeard figure, with Catalina his latest wife as the seventh (and the one to break this cycle). Lexander has a “daughter,” Neve, a witch and the story’s Snow White figure.
Then Neve’s fingers moved downward to graze parted lips; the maid’s neck, arching back; her collarbone. And there she paused, bent her head, pressed her lips to the heaving place between throat and breast.
The room felt too small, Neve too close. My heart was wild, a loosed, feral thing. I closed my eyes and tamed it with thoughts like whips.
I especially admire how Jennifer Diemer’s subverted the center of the Snow White tradition, the jealousy between women vying for men’s attention (and so, chock-full of misogyny): here nobody wants Lexander’s attention, Catalina and Neve are too busy falling in love with each other, and both actively seek to free the trapped souls of his previous wives.
The second novella, Sarah Diemer’s Braided, is somewhat weaker but rooted in much the same idea–two girls in love and trying to free one another, and finally achieving that freedom by each other’s strength. A fairly interesting take on the Rapunzel motif, making the tower a magical tree and the Rapunzel figure, Zelda, a girl who has had the narrator’s “fate” grafted onto her, bearing the burden of being the tree’s guardian for her entire life. An arrangement that, as it turns out, is the malaise that’s killing the tree.
The third and final novella is a take on Hansel and Gretel, Crumbs, with a zombie apocalypse setting. The witch’s house is a factory, the sweets a scientific experiment, and the “witch” a woman the narrator falls in love with.
I’m confused, that’s what I am. That kiss was the sweetest thing that ever happened to me. I really like Sabine. She’s kind and smart and funny and pretty, and she’s soft in all the right places. I love her smile.
But my brother won’t wake up, and she keeps wanting me to eat cupcakes, which is all sorts of crazy.
Here Sarah Diemer’s trying out a voice very different from what she uses in The Dark Wife and Braided and I’m not sure it’s a successful experiment. There are often slips into formality, into fairytale speech, which accumulate to a net effect that works against the colloquialisms. It’s still an unusual reimagining in its own right, but I was much less taken with this one than the others.
But all told it’s a much more creative retelling of these stories than I’ve seen from most–many authors who do similar things are far too entrenched in the original stories and their motifs to deviate far–and they’re well-told love stories, for all that I (still!) wish both authors were capable of finer prose. Not that what’s there isn’t good; it’s certainly more than decent, and again better than what many pro-published writers churn out. Of all three stories, I’d rate Seven as the best in the collection, with the strongest language and handling.