Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins
NY: HarperCollins, 1997.

“When young writers write to me about following in the footsteps of those who string together nouns and verbs for a living, I tell them this: every story has already been told,” said Anna Quindlen, delivering the commencement address at Mount Holyoke College.

While there is no tale still untold, each writer can bring something unique to her work, she continued: “herself, her own personality, her own voice”.

In Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, Emma Donoghue offers renderings of some stories we have long known and others we may have forgotten in a fresh, bold voice that resonates long after you have turned the last page.

With language that somehow manages to be both spare and luxurious, Donoghue spins thirteen magical tales, interweaving them so skillfully that it is nearly impossible to separate the endings from the beginnings.

They are peopled with princesses with golden hair, lily cheeks and ruby lips who like to muddy their ankles, stalwart guardians who sing lullabies of the names of herbs, old women who make lives for themselves in caves overlooking the sea where the gulls circle, daring maids who swear oaths by the open sky, young beasts with appetites for magic, and young beauties who know the power of an enchanted kiss.

Their sensuality may make you blush; their horror may make you angry; their truths may make you ache; their beauty may make you sigh.

Each woman tells her own story in her own voice. You may recognize some of them beneath their new skins: she who leaves her ill-fitting shoes behind in favour of an existence where the chimes at midnight demand no transformation, she whose step-mother gave her an apple that might have been poisoned but was merely bitter, she who plaited her hair into a ladder leading out of the tower that brought her closer to the light, or she who gave up her voice for a lover who was not all she had imagined him to be.

Perhaps you will know the woman who nibbles at her food, holds in her belly, never loosens the lines of her body, smiles prettily until her face is twisted, or works so hard that she forgets she is a woman.

Yet perhaps you yearn to know the young woman who transforms herself: “The thing is to take your life into your own hands.”

Or the witch who advises: “Change for your own sake, if you must, not for what you imagine another will ask of you.”

Or the princess who sheds her own skin to save it: “I looked down and recognized myself.”

These are not the stories I read as a girl; they are the stories I wish I had read as a girl.

“There are some tales not for telling,” Donoghue writes. These thirteen, however, are most certainly for telling.

Read them out loud, to someone else or to yourself, let them shed their old skins gleefully, capering across your tongue like thirteen dancing princesses. Let them remind you of your power to grow a new skin.

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This was actually written shortly after Kissing the Witch was published; I’ve pulled it out of storage with thoughts of all the hype surrounding her novel, Room, this year. It’s posted here to mark the IFOA Round Table with Emma Donoghue this evening. (This is just one of several events this evening: please see the IFOA site for details and ticket information.)

Which Emma Donoghue novel have you read? Or, which are you planning to read?

Companion Reads:
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
Barbara Walker’s Feminist Fairy Tales
Cahterynne M. Valente’s In the Night Garden