Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter

            When I posted on my Goodreads account that I was reading the short story collection “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter, one of my friends commented, and I quote, “lol you would read something like this (if the title gives any clue).”  I find this comment disturbing.  Very disturbing.  It is, however, with relief tinged regret that I must say she was wrong.  “The Bloody Chamber” wasn’t really for me.

           Don’t think this conclusion is some sort of knee jerk reaction against her comment either.  Truth be told, I really wanted to like this book.  A professor for a class in magical realism I took compiled a massive list at the end of the semester of recommended reading.  I picked up “The Bloody Chamber,” among other books, off of his recommendation.

            And I can see why he recommended it.  The book in many ways is excellent.  It’s an assortment of re-imagined fairy tales from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Little Red Riding Hood.”  These aren’t the Disney, child friendly adaptations either.  It’s graphic, both violently and sexually, though it never feels gratuitous.  Instead, these aspects serve to make these tales more relevant to modern life and values in addition to being an integral part to some of the feminist undertones that pervade the book.  Feminism often gets a bad wrap, but I feel in this collection it’s handled tastefully in the sense that men are not demonized but rather women are empowered.

            The most notable aspect of the book is the breathtaking prose.  At many points I felt like I was reading a raunchier Edgar Allan Poe.  Though it was written in the 1970s the prose feels much older and richer than many books written during that era.  Here’s a sentence taken at random:
“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”
The whole book flows with that type of vivid complexity of description.  Each sentence is beautifully crafted and is very effective in creating a tangle of atmosphere and tension.

            The problem comes in, however, when that tension breaks.  It feels wrong to criticize a book of re-imagined fairy tales for their plot, but the mastery with which Carter handles the build up and climaxes of these stories is absent from most of the resolutions.  Often ending abruptly or with a broad overview of the future for the characters that is jarring after the slow pace of the rest of the story, it left me unsatisfied after an otherwise wonderful story telling experience.

            Otherwise, this collection has everything going for it, which is why it puzzles me that, all in all, I didn’t love this book.  I didn’t hate it either.  I appreciated Carter’s story telling ability but I found myself many times flipping to the back of the book to see how many pages I had left.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for a primarily plot driven book.  Perhaps reading a short story collection on a plane ride isn’t a good idea.  Perhaps just coming off the stress of finals I should have picked up a lighter read.  But despite my only mild enjoyment of this collection, I really don’t think it’s deserving of a negative review.  In fact I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants engaging stories woven with fantastic prose.  As for my personal favorite story in this collection, I’ll have to go with “Puss-in-Boots” which, largely due to being told from the point of view of the cat Puss himself, is hilarious.

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