A Wild Swan – Michael Cunningham

Review of: A Wild Swan

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On December 7, 2015
Last modified:January 2, 2016


"By treading through that grey area of the human psyche, Cunningham deftly analyses the fairy tale, pulling it into the modern realm and molding princes and witches into complex, vulnerable humans."

“If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the wedded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely . . . would you?” From the outset of A Wild Swan, written by Pulitzer prize winner Michael Cunningham, the perversity of humankind is made explicit: we are bitterly envious creatures, obstinate in our desires and callous in the fulfilment of them. Yet it is difficult when traversing Cunningham’s collection of beautifully written, mutated fairy tales, to believe that human nature can be anything but a melting pot of benevolent intentions and selfish hunger. By treading through that grey area of the human psyche, Cunningham deftly analyses the fairy tale, pulling it into the modern realm and molding princes and witches into complex, vulnerable humans. The result is a heady mixture of playfulness and horror, pinned down by Cunningham’s nimble, punchy prose, and Yuko Shimizu’s extravagantly vivid accompanying illustrations.

The opening, eponymous fairy tale utilises Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, and covers  Andersen’s tale with panache as it questions  the black and white morality of the characters that it presents to us [“Do we blame her? Do we, really?” the narrator asks after the Queen turns her unruly, boisterous stepsons into swans]. Yet instead of being purely an unimaginative rendering of the tale, Cunningham extends it beyond its happily ever after, and follows the swan-winged prince – transformed back into human form save his arm – into bars, into his middle age years, and into devouring loneliness. The subsequent tale, ‘Crazy Old Lady’, continues the  themes of isolation and sexual unfulfilment, by drawing the promiscuous, reckless history of Hansel and Gretel’s witch as she binds  herself in bodycon dresses at age sixty, and styles herself as a carnal goddess. She constructs her gingerbread house to lure the sexually naïve, [“the boy gangs looking for hideouts where they could . . . imbibe the whiskey they needed in order to fully imagine themselves”], blind to her own naivety and the youths that are just as animalistic as she is.

The pattern thus continues: Jack and his mother descend into a life of materialism and alcoholism after the giant falls, the treasures they stole – the gold egg-laying hen, the self-playing harp – shackled and living in an earthly prison; Snow White is subject to her prince’s sexual fetish: a voyeuristic desire to watch her sleeping in a glass coffin; Mr White doesn’t use the monkey paw’s third wish, and he and his wife’s lives strain with the presence of their silently suffering, undead son [“why do they keep it here, what exactly did it do that was so wrong?” the narrator tragically remarks, parental love and human torture becoming confused and blended].

It is Cunningham’s complex characterisation that colours his tales and sets them apart from the bounty of modern reimaginings of fairy and folk tales, which tend to completely darken the mood for hollow thrills. Rumpelstiltskin’s paternal desire gifts a sympathetic edge to his character, and yet it is this same desire that transforms his selfless act of love into a transaction, a means through which he can gain. Cunningham humanises the caricature, and adds dimensions to them that alter the fairy tale realm from one of black and white morality to grey. Tragic tales are flecked with moments of brilliant humour – the swan-winged prince’s attempt to sexually commodify his wing is tragicomic, his tacky chat-up lines a reminder of his desperation. The author creates stories that are whimsical yet grounded by reality. It is remarkable that in such short tales [the entire work can be read in one, comfortable sitting], Cunningham can conjure such complex worlds.

Of course, as with most short story collections, there are usually a few that seem limp and lifeless compared to the others . ‘Her Hair’, involving the not-so-happily-ever-after of Rapunzel, her prince, and her severed hair, relies too heavily on its dark twist to save its abrupt shortness and complete absence of character exploration. Whilst one of the longer stories in the collection, ‘Beasts’ skirts on the potential of its reimagining, by making both Beauty and the Beast flat and predictable; the spark of brilliance that erupts out of the other tales only makes itself evident in the haunting, tense finale, but even then, it feels cheap, like a thrilling trick intended to make readers forget what came before it.

Cunningham’s A Wild Swan is a welcome breath of fresh air as it manages to find an uninhabited cranny in the swarm of modernised fairy tales written each year. Whilst at times its tales rely too heavily on the popularity of this genre, it sets itself apart with its twists and turns, and its offering of both disturbing and authentic human exploration. The beautifully warped illustrations by Shimizu add much to the collection, which, together with  Cunningham’s prose, creates a work that is mostly style, but with a heavy dose of substance.

About Sarah-Jane Tollan (8 Articles)
An ex-Medical School student metamorphosed into a struggling Cambridge English undergraduate. Likes true crime, David Attenborough documentaries, and cathedrals.
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