Book review: A Wild Swan (by Michael Cunningham)

Title: A Wild Swan
Author: Michael Cunningham
Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 2/5 stars

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Fairy tales for our times from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours

A poisoned apple and a monkey’s paw with the power to change fate; a girl whose extraordinarily long hair causes catastrophe; a man with one human arm and one swan’s wing; and a house deep in the forest, constructed of gumdrops and gingerbread, vanilla frosting and boiled sugar. In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, the people and the talismans of lands far, far away—the mythic figures of our childhoods and the source of so much of our wonder—are transformed by Michael Cunningham into stories of sublime revelation.
Here are the moments that our fairy tales forgot or deliberately concealed: the years after a spell is broken, the rapturous instant of a miracle unexpectedly realized, or the fate of a prince only half cured of a curse. The Beast stands ahead of you in line at the convenience store, buying smokes and a Slim Jim, his devouring smile aimed at the cashier. A malformed little man with a knack for minor acts of wizardry goes to disastrous lengths to procure a child. A loutish and lazy Jack prefers living in his mother’s basement to getting a job, until the day he trades a cow for a handful of magic beans.
Reimagined by one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, our bedtime stories been this dark, this perverse, or this true.

A Wild Swan is one of those books that I notice, that I see around, yet somehow never pick up for myself. Luckily, I have friends who do it for me. Then again, birthday presents are so much harder to write an honest review about. Does anyone else have this issue where you feel like you have to be more positive about a book, because it was a present and you don’t want to insult/disappoint the person who gave you it? Because I do.

I’m still going to do my best to be completely honest here.

This specific book is a collection of short fairytales. These are the stories most of us will know: Rapunzel, Snow White, Beauty & The Beast, Rumpelstiltkin, etc. Except that they’re all written with a ‘modern twist’. Now, I’m not entirely sure which part is this twist: is it the characters going to stores, or bars? Is it them smoking and drinking? Because those habits have been around for longer than these fairytales.

What I assumed to be the ‘modern twist’ is the style and general atmosphere of these stories. It can be summarised as ‘extremely cynical and depressing’, like so many other ‘modern twist’ stories nowadays. To be honest, I’m not here for this kind of cynical BS. I’m not here for commentary on how bad and lonely this world is, or how ~knowledgeable~ and ~real~ people are about it. Get out of your hipster phase and go, oh I don’t know, smell a flower or something. Cynicism is not new or modern or inventive, it’s boring and annoying. (I’m not a big fan of extreme positivity either – balance is key, people!)

Does that mean I hate this book? Absolutely not. I did mostly enjoy it, it definitely had its interesting moments. I especially like the ending to the Beauty & the Beast story. I’m not a big fan of the art, but it did add that extra layer to the book that makes it more well-rounded. It’s a quick read, so it’s great to either dip in and out of, or just sit down with on a quiet Sunday evening with a cup of tea and read the whole thing in one go, as I did.

Still, A Wild Swan does make me wonder if we can also get a modern twist on a story and have it be actually positive. It also makes me wonder what it says about our times if a modern twist automatically means it’s dark and cynical and gloomy, where fairytale characters end up as alcoholics or where the most positive superhero in our history gets the gloomiest movie (sidenote: I have not seen Man of Steel, and I do not intend to, but I have heard stories. And oh, how those stories terrify me.)

In a way, that means it was a successful book: it made me think, it made me question, and it got an emotional reaction out of me. That’s more than can be said for a lot of other books I’ve read over the years.

I’m still just giving it two stars. Just because, urgh, so cynical.

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3 Responses to Book review: A Wild Swan (by Michael Cunningham)

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