Deerskin: Robin McKinley

★★★½

Fairy tales were originally born as dark things, a world away from the pastel-coloured sugar of Disney’s princesses, and they weren’t always meant for children. They were ways of rationalising the brutalities of life, of creating a happy ending beyond the horrific events that might be suffered. Fairy tales deal with infanticide, child mortality, forced marriages, murder and child abuse and yet Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is based on a tale (Donkeyskin) deemed so particularly unpalatable that it’s rarely published, even though it was originally written by Charles Perrault. With grace, sensitivity and compassion, McKinley turns this little-known story into a powerful tale of self-healing.

Once upon a time, a brave and handsome king won as his wife the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and they lived happily ever after. So far, so standard. But Deerskin takes us further into that story, showing us a royal couple obsessed with one another and a nation intoxicated by their glamour: a world of adoration which quite overlooks the king and queen’s shy and unloved only child. When the queen falls ill, still in her prime, she extracts one final promise from her distraught husband: that he will never marry anyone less beautiful than she. And so she dies; the king plunges into grief; and their daughter Lissar continues to grow up, cocooned within a self-indulgent court that has no real place for her. Her only comfort is the fleethound puppy Ash, presented to her as a gift by the son of a neighbouring king. Puppy and girl become best friends, but Lissar’s contented innocence – and irrelevance – can only last so long. For she is her mother’s daughter and she has inherited her mother’s looks. When she attends a splendid ball held for her seventeenth birthday, it becomes clear to all of those present that the princess is as beautiful as the long-dead queen. The king also notices. And Lissar, to her horror, realises that her father has begun thinking of taking a new wife…

Many fantasy novels focus on evil as an external force, embodied in something else: orcs, trollocs or demons, which our heroes can fight against. But McKinley’s story is driven by the monstrosity of human nature itself when warped and self-obsessed, and it’s consequently harder-hitting than any epic battle scene. Much of the book is devoted to the consequences of one horrific night and deals with Lissar’s efforts to come to terms with her new reality. Struggling to overcome her trauma, she flees into the mountains from her palace and her city, accompanied only by the loyal Ash. And it’s here that Lissar slowly regains control over her thoughts and her body, until one day she feels herself strong enough to move on. Drawn inexplicably towards a distant city, shedding her old identity and adopting a new name, Lissar will require all her resilience and courage to deal with the new destiny that awaits her.

McKinley deals thoughtfully with very difficult subject matter and, although I am fortunate enough never to have experienced trauma like Lissar’s, I found the character’s recovery and responses consistent with what I would expect of someone in her position. Funnily enough, at the same time, McKinley fumbles when it comes to understanding how a rape survivor might finally be able to face the world again. It’s as if she doesn’t trust herself to do justice to that final, crucial stage of healing and instead she introduces no fewer than three deus ex machina moments in which Lissar is guided by supernatural force through the hardest parts of her recovery. It is a fairy tale, after all, but this somehow feels like fudging in a story which is so honest, so ruthlessly and grimly frank.

Although this isn’t really the kind of book you enjoy, I found it more successful than Rose Daughter, the other novel of McKinley’s that I’ve read to date. Both are reimaginings of fairy tales, but I suppose Deerskin has the advantage that its source material is less familiar; and I also thought the characterisation of Lissar was more thorough than that of Beauty. McKinley writes beautifully, bringing out the darkness that flows beneath the surface in these old tales, but also highlighting the goodness and strength that we all have within us, even at moments when it seems too hard to carry on. Recommended to those interested in retellings of fairy tales and in thoughtful, character-centred fantasy.

According to Wikipedia, Emma Donoghue has also retold this fairy tale in a short story, The Tale of the Skin, but I can’t find where this has been published. Does anyone know?

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3 thoughts on “Deerskin: Robin McKinley

  1. Carol M. says:

    I think you would enjoy some of McKinley’s other work even more than these novels. “Beauty” is another retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I think it’s her first novel, certainly it’s the first of hers that I read and decades later I still turn to it again and again. “The Hero and the Crown” and “The Blue Sword” are great, don’t be deterred by seeing them categorized as children’s lit. “Sunshine” is her best work to date, IMHO.

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