Off the Shelf: 'A Wild Swan' a delightful new take on classic tales

Book Review: "A Wild Swan" by Michael Cunningham(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Michael Cunningham does an impressive job of enhancing the many classic tales he includes in his latest book, "A Wild Swan," adding and deepening character, motivation, plot, pathos and humor, as well as setting them in a more modern world. And the illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are simply stunning, reminding me of how much I used to love coming upon illustrations when reading through the many books of classic tales, Anderson, Brothers Grimm and others, I had as a child, though few illustrations were as lovely as Shimizu's. But I'm not sure what I would have made of Cunningham's enhanced tales had I read them as a child. Even when the players are given more "humanity" - perhaps because of it - the tales' ultimate implications are clearer, the cruelty and darkness underlying many of the tales deepener.

In "Little Man," Cunningham's retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin," a gnome spins straw into gold to win what he desperately longs for, a child, and laments the fact that having a child is something "readily available to any drunk and barmaid who link up for three minutes in one of the darker corners of any dank and scrofulous pub," let alone to any ordinary single man applying for adoption - but completely unavailable to a 200-year-old gnome, no matter how magical he may be.

Then there is this "Crazy Old Lady," who builds a house of candy in the woods, a la "Hansel and Gretel," though she has done it not to attract and eat children but because after a "career of harshly jovial sluttishness," she had "expected ruin to arrive in a grander and more romantic form," and is starved for attention. Then when two "pierced and tattooed" kids with "starved and foxy-faces" show up, we know who the real victim will be.

The same interweaving of comedy and poignancy can be found in the wonderful title tale, "A Wild Swan," itself when ... but I don't want to give away too much of these dark but charming retellings that will make you laugh even as you feel again the pain of them. They're tales you'll want to experience - or re-experience - firsthand.

- Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator