Haroun and the Sea of Stories – by Salman Rushdie
He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a children’s book, and like all the best children’s books it is able to be enjoyed by adults without need for nostalgia or irony.
Haroun is a young boy who lives with his mother and his father, the town story teller, in “… a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name,” which is just about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Despite living in a sad city, Haroun and his parents are happy. Until they aren’t. Haroun’s efforts to restore his family’s happiness send him on an epic adventure where he makes some unusual friends, defeats a villain, saves a princess, and brings peace to a war torn country.
The story is delightful, if a smidge formulaic, but this is a children’s book after all. The prose is all Rushdie, which is to say exquisite. I read this book in one sitting, but then leafed back through it to reread some of the more striking passages, like this one about the magic and power of stories.
To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it — well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
Definitely not a children’s book.
In this collection, Michael Cunningham fills the empty spaces in some classic children’s stories. What happens after the prince awakens the sleeping princess? Who was the wicked witch before she was old and bent? Why does Rumplestiltskin want a child? These are not retellings, they are character studies. The thing about a fairy tale is that character development is intentionally omitted. The princess is beautiful and kind and the prince is handsome and brave and the witch is, well, wicked, but the whys and wherefores are not explored because they don’t need to be and they aren’t the point. Cunningham tells the (true-er?) story of the fractured and broken survivors of their own fairy tales.
All of the stories are exquisite and raw and right up my alley. I was impressed by Cunningham’s complicated portrayals of the characters in his pulitzer winning novel, The Hours, and I wondered if he would be able to paint the same kind of intricate portraits when restricted to short stories. He does not fail to deliver.
I already returned this book to the library and lost my page of quotes that I had jotted down, so I don’t have any to share, but believe me that the writing is flawless. The language is not sparse, but there are no extra words. Every detail enhances the characters. If being able to go back to reread Cunningham’s artful character constructions aren’t reason enough to own this book, Yuko Shimizu’s haunting illustrations should seal the buy-don’t-borrow deal. The one above takes my breath away every time I see it. In this story, Snow White and her prince are having an awkward conversation about a bedtime ritual that she has grown tired of.
Probably my favorite story in the collection is Beasts, which definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. The Beast is, as in the original story, just a man, but as any woman among us can tell you that doesn’t mean that he’s harmless.
Until next time…