Inspired by the gruesome Grimm Fairytales, this is a book that takes elements of many tried-and-true campfire stories and weaves them into a deliciously modern tale of strength, weakness and all that’s in between.
Sophie is a princess, weak of heart and ruled by her stepmother who orders her huntsman to cut out her heart. From the Darkwood where she is left to die, she embarks upon a journey to retrieve what she has lost, helped by seven strangers, a grave robber and a farm boy. And, true to form, thwarted by poisoned apples, scorpions and snakes.
Having heard of Jennifer Donnelly as a writer who not only loves fairytales but is also a modern feminist like me, I was thrilled to dive into this story.
Full of short chapters, this is an easy read even if you’re finding reading difficult at the moment. It has an abundance of nods to the original Grimm tales, using German foods and place names to set the scene (that won me over right from the start as a dedicated germanophile!)
The story starts in the expected way, with Sophie as the weak princess who is ruled by her “evil” stepmother, Adelaide. Now, this is something I despise because the origins of this story are where the whole ‘evil stepmother’ trope started, but I found myself relating to Adelaide more than Sophie at this point. Being a stepmother, and a childless one at that, is bloody hard. It’s not surprising a woman would become somewhat bitter and angry, especially when she also has to run a kingdom. Adelaide has been hardened by grief and loss and the chances are that if you’re reading this review you’ll know this on some level too.
Although the book is pitched as a feminist read, I was a little disappointed to begin with that throughout her journey, Sophie was repeatedly helped by men. Arno in particular might have been just as great a character if he were a woman! As the story progressed though, it became obvious that Sophie was no longer the meek girl she once was, and she began to show her strength and fight her own battles; this is where the feminism part really took hold.
I was overjoyed at the end of the story when the epilogue wasn’t just a snapshot of babies and heirs – I fully expected this as there were pronatalist ideologies throughout. Some minor characters were pregnant or young mothers with one scene even talking about a young mother carrying her child and an old mother being carried by hers – no recognition here of the women who aren’t mothers. But this is a minor point, and overall I was very impressed with the writing, the story telling and the emotional depth of the novel.
This book is a beautifully crafted metaphor for grief, loss and strength. A gorgeous story, rooted in fairytale, that doesn’t end with a baby! What more could I ask for?
As I’ve mentioned above, there are elements of pronatalism in the story and a few appearances of pregnant villagers. There is also a minor sub-plot of the death of a small child.
It would be safe to assume that the untold part of the story ‘after the end’ will include babies, because of course that’s what’s expected of a ruler. However, it isn’t explicitly told that way, for which I was grateful, particularly as it felt a if it was heading that way towards the end. Instead, Sophie’s story is left wide open, with no expectation or assumption.