Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

BeautyBeauty is the final instalment in Pinborough’s re-telling of classic fairy-tales, after Poison (Snow White) and Charm (Cinderella). They are billed as fairy tales told as they should have been: sexy, delicious, twisted and wicked. Beauty is of course, the story of Sleeping Beauty.

Before I read this lovely purple short novel, all I remembered of the story of Sleeping Beauty was that it was mostly about a Prince who cut through a wall of vines to awaken a sleeping princess who’d fallen into a 100 year sleep after being cursed. The Prince kissed Beauty, she woke, and they lived happily ever after. What could be done with that slight plot? A little pre-reading research led me to the fact the story does not originate from the Grimm Brothers. There were many antecedents, but the main one is La Belle au bois dormant (“The Beauty sleeping in the Wood”) by Charles Perrault, published in 1697. In this version, there are 7 good fairies who bring gifts to the newborn princess. A wicked fairy is overlooked and curses Beauty to the famous sleep. The classic ending, of the Prince kissing her to break the curse, comes from this telling. That same day, they head over to the hall of mirrors to dine and are later married by the chaplain in the castle chapel. The story continues with an Orge queen coming into the plot. The Grimm version was published in the 1812-15 edition of the Grimms’ The Nursery and Household Tales and was called Little Briar Rose. This story ends with the Prince rescuing Beauty with a kiss. The Grimms were looking to tell tales which would reunite a fractured Germany after the Napoleonic Wars. Their version was meant to underscore the values of the political restoration; the uniting of two kingdoms with a kiss.

And now to Pinborugh. She basically throws all that out the window and using the 100 year curse, tells a very different story. The Prince is joined by a huntsman. He needs an adventure to become a man before being able to rule his own land. En route to the cursed forest, he meets woman called Petra (who has a Granny and a wolf problem). She joins the men on their journey for her own very good reasons. They eventually – as they must – find and wake Beauty, which also wakes the rest of the kingdom. The Prince and Beauty fall in love and a marriage is planned. However, there is talk of dark days and a mysterious part of the castle where no-one goes. It’s not long before the huntsman has a night of passion with a serving girl, while the Prince learns a terrible secret. This one isn’t going to end happily ever after for the Prince.

In a very short piece, Pinborough crams in a whole lot of plot. What is the great skill, however, is that it never feels forced. She has taken the basic elements of Sleeping Beauty and added more depth to it. There are more characters with their own motivations. Beauty’s father’s adviser and friend is surprising and welcome addition. The plot weaves and twists (and without giving anything away), surprising and delighting the reader. Anyone with any interest in fairy tale and myth will smile and smile again. What Beauty doesn’t really have are any of the political subtexts of the earlier versions of the story. In those, themes are of reunification of kingdoms. In this, it is simply that the Prince needs an adventure. In those, the heroine is silenced for many years, only to be rescued by a male hero, who then marries him. In this, the female protagonists are strong and multi-layered characters. This is not a feminist version, but an equality version. All the characters have depth, strengths and weaknesses. Petra, for example, sacrifices herself for the future of the kingdom, but also for love. The Prince learns that beauty is not just skin deep. Throughout, the subtext shines through. While the earlier entries into the series have genuine sexiness, this one, however, is more horrific. There are brief moments of ‘wickedness’, such as the huntsman and the serving girl, and Petra and the man who comes into her life, but they are played down compared to the love scenes in Poison, for example. Beauty shows its clear horror credentials in a pre-climactic scene – in which the Prince discovers the truth – which is an orgy of sex and violence more suited to a Brian Yuzna film, than a fairy tale.

There is a lot of skill and wit in Beauty. Pinborough is a great storyteller. It is a modern account of life, love and sacrifice, set in fairytale land. The originals reflect the times when they were written and told, and Beauty reflects themes of today. Without giving away the big reveal, it is about dealing the truths we all hold within ourselves, including our demons. It is dark and horrific, and also uplifting. Which is quite an achievement for a story of wolves and witches, magical forests and secret tunnels, and of course good and evil – with the shades of grey in-between.

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