Beware: this fairy tale collection will cause readers to sit up straight, to blink, to swallow in fear. Anyone “used to sitting back and eavesdropping, playing the voyeur on the lives of others,” in the words of its narrator, will be disappointed. At first glance, Katie Farris’s debut collection resembles an artifact recovered from an asylum. The narrator refers to herself a “madwoman” and begins with a discussion of storytelling that quickly deteriorates into an all-too-realistic description of her hand reaching “out to take you, dear reader, by the throat”:
I can feel you swallowing. It’s a natural reflex to having your esophagus squeezed. Each of the cartilegenous rings that prop your wind-pipe open trembles under my touch, your Adam’s apple, the slightly greasy place where you dabbed your perfume. What is it you hope to accomplish by reading this book? You were hoping to escape unscathed?
Framed and occasionally interrupted by the narrator’s italicized ramblings are a riddle and thirteen illustrated tales. In light of the introduction, their illustrations, ink drawings by the talented Lavinia Hanachiuc, seem to recall artwork by psychiatric inmates, which art brut aficionados might champion for being raw and unaffected by social constraints. Yet unlike most metafiction, which calls attention to the fact that it is a fictional artifact, creating a space of irony, Farris’s conceit works to make these tales come alive, as myths, as dreams.
The titular eight “girls” of the first half of the book are beautiful and violent, mythic creatures, metaphors made real. There is the tale of “the girl whose mother’s mother was a machete,” whose grandmother gives her a gift of her mother’s “pelt” on her sixth birthday. There is the tale of “the girl who grew,” a doll-like girl who grows to be twenty stories tall, is attacked by fearful villagers, then is left to rot in a swamp. There is “mise en abyme,” the tale about “the girl with a mirror for a face,” who looks down at the city, causing the city to fall in love with itself, and her, in her gaze. The girl is happy to have something to reflect: “Have you ever looked into a mirror with another mirror? Nothing reflected back into nothing. An infinity of nothing.” This imagery repeats in other tales—light catches and plays on mirrors, characters look into mirrors and see nothing—evoking the maddeningly complex and infinitely reflective relationship between image and viewer, or text and reader, as well as the reflective nature of love.
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The mood of the girls’ tales varies wildly—from gorgeous to playful to nightmarish—perhaps like the mood of their institutionalized narrator. Farris’s language is delicious, maddening and mythic, dreamlike, sarcastic, witty. In “cyclops,” when the title character trembles before scientists who photograph and inject her, she seems—like the narrator—to go insane, and her language reflects it: “She loves to hear them say her name, loves the circular sound of Cy-clops, psyclops eyeclops, like a horse galloping over their tongues.” Her face has only a single notable quality: “that eye, blue and green and brown, roaming moist within its socket. No pupil, no white sclera: all iris, all rainbow.” Farris has a poet’s interest in sound and wordplay, although she occasionally overindulges, and the humor borders on slapstick. In “the devil’s face,” the Devil has “horny corny feet” and the word “move” acquires multiple nightmarish meanings for which even the threat of strangulation at the beginning may not do enough to psychologically prepare readers. Occasionally, words are misspelled (“parastalsis,” “pirhouette,” “Pangea”), although the conceit of the book is so seductive that I actually found myself wondering whether the narrator was denied access to a dictionary.
The five “boys” tales of the second half of the book include the tragic “Boy with One Wing,” who pines somewhat humorously for flight as women watch and whisper, “Times are hard for dreamers.” He wants to correct them: “Not a dreamer, he would...