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Marvels & Tales 17.1 (2003) 175-178
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The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold. By Kate Bernheimer. Normal/Tallahassee: FC2, 2001. 192 pp.
Twisting, dreamlike, and surreal, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold is a fascinating exploration of the many levels that fairy tales influence in the human psyche. The author, Kate Bernheimer, references various tales—"The Star Talers," "Bluebeard," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "The Armless Maiden," to name only a few—from a number of perspectives that, with each recurrence, grant deeper insight into the character of the narrator, the titular Ketzia Gold. In the manner of other postmodern fairy tales, Ketzia possesses a knowledge of the structure and format of traditional lore that informs her views, leading readers to natural conclusions regarding the inherent values of their own, corresponding interests.
Bernheimer opens the narrative with a section entitled "The Saltmarsh Tale of Lies," a modern take on the classic "The Ditmarsh Tale of Lies" (AT 1930), in which the fantastic nature of the events recounted therein—flying bathers and the like—are contextualized by temporal details that secure the teller's place in the mundane world. Cleverly updating the original, this section firmly establishes the unique voice that Ketzia utilizes in the telling of her story. After recounting the unlikely events, the speaker says, "Shut up if you don't believe me. . . . So open the window and let the lies out, I say" (11), creating the simultaneous impression of both an unruly child recounting an adventure and a sage adding to the oral tradition, through the device of colloquial speech paired with a traditional conclusion. The sections are not arranged in a chronological order; rather, the reminiscences flow forth intuitively, with current events in Ketzia's life giving way to childhood memories, clarifying the reasons for her choices and actions through the usage of fairy tale tropes as the keys to Ketzia's motivations. [End Page 175]
Ketzia is the middle child of the Gold family, possessing a disagreeable older sister, Merry, and a charming younger sister, Lucy. As in A. S. Byatt's poststructuralist tale, "The Story of the Eldest Princess" (The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories), Ketzia seems fully cognizant of what would be her "place" in a traditional tale by dint of birth order. She says, "As the story goes, there were three of us—I was in the middle. We are all, I am told, as beautiful as the others. . . . Our heads are all the exact same shape and size, but one of us has loose amber curls that lift and fall in delicate waves, one a blonde head—full thick and straight, and I, fine brown strands that bend strangely this way and that" (123). The individualization that Ketzia grants herself and the lack of self-esteem implied in her choice of self-descriptive adjectives are symptomatic of the attitudes she displays throughout the novel, of isolation and self-denigration.
Many of Ketzia's insecurities, founded in her youth, carry through into her life as an adult and are projected onto her husband, Adam, as can be seen through the roles that he plays in the versions of the fairy tales that Ketzia superimposes over her own life. In the original version of "The Star Talers" (AT 779), for example, the main character's destitute condition is due to her orphaned state; in the retelling, Ketzia is poverty stricken as a result of her separation from her husband. A chapter entitled "The Tiny Closet" reminds readers of "Bluebeard" (AT 312); Adam bestows the key to a closet containing his secret things upon Ketzia. Curious, she explores it, to find mementos of his life with other women—his sister, strangers. Her transgression goes undiscovered, but it affects her marriage with Adam nevertheless. They both survive, but the marriage does not. In one very disturbing scene that brings to mind the story "Little Red Riding Hood" (AT 333), Ketzia drowns her marital sorrows in a combination of alcohol and narcotics, dressing cheerfully in a red, fuzzy coat with a hood before she collapses into...