Review: Poison by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Poison by Sarah Pinsborough

The cover promises ‘a wicked, delicious, sexy Snow White fairytale’ so the question is does it deliver?

But before we answer that let’s look at the problem of modern-day fairy tales.  In Cinderella, when the wicked step sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit in the glass shoe what was really shocking was the two singing pigeons:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

What do you mean you don’t remember that in the Disney version? Oh that’s right; they didn’t use it. They sanitised the original and made it more ‘child-friendly’ (whatever that means) though I think a child would like that little bit of gore.

There are lots of issues with the portrayal of both sexes in  modern fairy tales. Things that you might not at first see to be issues. If you’ve read the works of Angela Carter especially The Bloody Chamber you’ll know what I mean. Her short stories give you a completely different view about how women are expected to behave and how powerful or powerless they can be.

In Poison Pinborough is in a middle ground between Disney’s interpretation and Carter’s feminism though much closer to the latter than the former. She takes the girl who was saved by dwarfs and turns her into a women and in the process strips away the veneer to show us a warts and all portrayal that is much more akin to reality.

Of course, it is still a fairytale. We have wicked step-mothers, charming princes, poisoned apples but we also have depth and characters that show a range of both emotion and reaction. Something that the stripped down fairy tales can’t do as they are usually delivering simple moral messages (or if you’re Disney ideals that can never, and probably should never, be reached).

Some might complain about the sex (and they already have) as it’s not something that should be used in fairy tales as fairy tales are for children. Oh come on, really? How many adults do you know that secretly love sitting down watching Cinderella or Aladdin or Hercules? (The last two are my faves btw). And what’s wrong with extending that enjoyment into something that addresses adult themes? And then allows the heroines to be women and that allows wicked step-mum to have a range of emotions rather than being token evil. As well as asking who falls in love with an almost dead girl in a glass box?

A few points to note Poison is the first published book in a trio of interlinked but it is also cyclical, which is new technique on me, and it’ll be interesting how these events loop back on themselves. The reason I’m saying that as a standalone it doesn’t make sense. The ending is like an opening to another chapter rather than a resolution. Though the focus will change, next we have Charm and then Beauty, the exploration I hope will be as strong. And I hope to find out how the prince managed to be walking in the woods a bit worse for wear.

What I loved about Poison is it’s liberation. Snow White is what I’d like to see a princess aspiring too – maybe not everything – though pretty much. She holds her own. She resists the ideals of her step-mother as well-intentioned as they are. And the step-mother is well-intentioned, if deluded. You can see where she get’s it from as her own great-grandmother shows up.

Now at this point it’s worth mentioning that there as some things that might grate. Not the great-grandmother I liked her. And I liked what she represented. But she does represent ‘borrowing’ and Pinborough borrows a lot. It can’t be helped. It’s a fairytale. There are conventions and expectations, which kind of spoils my point about Disneyfication, but you can lean too heavily and there are points like the names of the dwarfs, where its source material may feel a little too borrowed from.

That’s a niggle.  Another niggle is that some things aren’t as smooth as they could be. The step-mothers moods are extreme and could have had more nuisance in the middle range. But again it’s irritant like an itch. Nothing that’s worth picking at.

Poison really does feel like Pinsborough is showing a world where women in fairy tales should be seen as women, sexual, dangerous, and real rather than something that can be projected on as they lie in a box like a warm corpse only for the charming prince to realise after who his love truly is after she’s woken up and strayed from his ideal.

To answer the original question: it is a wicked, delicious and sexy fairytale and well worth reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *