Red Shoes – Carmel Bird

Illustration of Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes

Date Completed: November 12 2016
Page Length: 333

This book pissed me off. When I realised I had reached the end, that that was it, no more to be revealed or resolved I furious. I hadn’t been so mad finishing a book since I read Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Once the initial rage wore off however, I realised this was pretty high praise. To evoke such a powerful response from a reader is, for a novel like this, the whole point. Or at least I think so. As a writer myself I’d prefer to be infuriating than forgettable.

The intertextuality throughout the novel is both overt and subliminal with the narrator (a guardian angel) mentioning specific stories while other narrative points simply echo other tales but are not specifically mentioned. Because the narrator has positioned us within a fairy tale context however, we pick up on the subliminal points anyway. We expect them to unfold as they do in the stories we know so well and they just… don’t.

On reflection I decided Red Shoes is not an unsatisfying read but rather deliberately sets to frustrate the expectations of the reader. It is not a revisionist fairy tale but an aborted, mutilated Frankensteinian creation. Weaving together threads of multiple tales, making illusions to films, novels, christianity and folklore it sets up the reader to recall familiar narrative frameworks and then shatters those expectations by totally subverting them. It can make for an extremely frustrating read but it’s also very clever and certainly forces you to think about these tales and their function in the ‘real world’ more carefully.

Perhaps if this novel was published today it would contain a trigger warning on the cover. It’s not a nice novel, pleasant things rarely, if ever, happen. The narrator is detached but an interesting approach to the omniscient narrator (which she actually isn’t but is close enough). The protagonist, for me, was completely unrelatable but she was recognisable, with stories of cult leaders and evil headmistresses (or step mothers) rife in the media and popular culture. I’m still not at peace with the book and I don’t know if I ever will be.

I suppose all I can say is read this one at your own risk.

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