Review: Poison by Sarah Pinborough

poisonIt’s Snow White, but not as you know her…
Take a wicked queen, a handsome princess, and a poisoned apple…
…and now read the true story of Snow White, told the way it always should have been…

Snow White is loved throughout the kingdom.  Carefree and kind, she’s won the hearts of her people and the envy of her young step-mother, who rules through fear and magic while the king fights a war far, far away.  Ruling would be so much easier without everyone transfixed by the young princess.  When a huntsman arrives at her door, the Queen sees her chance.  All she wants is Snow White’s heart…

When you hear the phrase ‘fairy tale’, what does it make you think of?  Disney? Princesses, witches, a handsome prince?  In Poison, Sarah Pinborough brings us all of this and more, viewing the story through grown-up eyes and telling it for adults, while still playing with the conventions we grew up with.

Recently, the desire to reimagine Snow White has been strong – we’ve seen Snow White and the Huntsman, with Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth in starring roles, as well as Mirror Mirror, a fairly slapstick take on the story, both in cinemas in 2012.  Of course, there’s the animated Disney Classic as well as 2007’s Enchanted which certainly takes elements of the story as it’s backbone.  With these adaptations out there, and so influential, it might be hard to see what more there is to bring to the story originally collected by the Grimm brothers in rural Germany a couple of hundred years ago.

What Sarah Pinborough does first is to foreground the ‘wicked stepmother’ figure, here called Lilith.  We’re asked to take a different view and empathise with a character traditionally vilified, and generally used as an anti-feminist stereotype, a woman who is jealous and useless, old and barren.  In Poison, Lilith is only a few years only than Snow White herself.  She’s also powerful, beautiful and trapped by her former and current positions in society.  We get a few rare insights into her past, before she married the King (whom she despises), and Pinborough fleshes out the events which have shaped her and her motivations to make her a really captivating character.

I was really intrigued by the use of nicknames in the book, too; Lilith is one of the few characters whose true name we learn.  We are told Snow White is a nickname but it’s one that everyone knows and uses, the Prince is just the Prince, the King is just the King; even though the dwarves have apparently quite Disney-like nicknames, in fact they’ve earned these while working in the mines which supply the wealth of the city.  Stumpy gained his in a surprisingly brutal manner.  I liked the simplicity of this; the story is after all a traditional folk tale full of archetypal characters whose names essentially describe them.  They serve a purpose within the story, while also making sure we don’t make the mistake of directly equating that world with this.

Despite the dwarf nicknames, make no mistake, Pinborough has very much un-Disney-fied the story of Snow White in this ‘true’ version.  Within the first few pages, Lilith is using her feminine wiles to get what she wants from the King before he rides off to war, and there is an undertone of simmering sexual tension throughout the book.  Sometimes that’s from Lilith, cold and imposing, but it’s also coming from Snow White too, who is in touch with nature but also her own body and femininity.  Between one and the other, the men really don’t stand a chance.  Some people may be put off by the frank sexuality of the story but fairytales were originally for adults, before they were tamed into morality lesson by neo-puritan Victorians – and the sex scenes are in no way misogynistic.  The women are at least equal partners if not more in what happens, and if Lilith chooses to use sex as a weapon, she has that freedom.

Poison is a really enjoyable read; it’s a fairytale reimagining in the most full-blooded way, very different in tone from something like Angela Carter but, I think, quite similar in the way in which female characters are foregrounded and empowered, for good or evil.  There are two more in the series – Charm and Beauty – and I for one can’t wait to read them.

Poison is out now, published by Gollancz

Kate Neilan

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