Deerskin by Robin McKinley

I couldn’t bring myself to curate a series of fairytale retellings without including something by Robin McKinley, probably the queen of the genre, and Deerskin has always been my favourite.

Deerskin_coverWhen he opened it he reached in to lift something out: and there was a small silver-fawn-colored fleethound puppy who trembled, and struggled to be set down, and as soon as the herald had done so tried to climb into his kneeling lap, and hide her small slender face under his arm.

“The Prince’s favourite bitch whelped two months ago,” said the herald, while the fleethound presented her rear parts to the court and dug her head farther under his arm. “When he heard of your loss, begged his parents to let him send the princess one of the puppies.”

It was the first time anyone of the court had thought of the princess since the queen fell ill.

Princess Lissar’s mother was the most beautiful lady in all of the seven kingdoms. When she died, when Lissar was just a child, she made the King promise that he would not marry again unless it were to someone as beautiful as she. Everyone knows that could never happen, but as Lissar grows up, she resembles her mother more and more, and so attracts the roving eye of her father.

Deerskin is a retelling of the fairytale ‘Donkeyskin’ or ‘All-kinds-of-fur’ (also known as ‘The King who wished to marry his daughter’ for those who prefer their titles less subtle), where the heroine has to escape the attentions of her father and work in poverty for a while, until she catches the eye of a convenient Prince. It’s an unusual choice for a fairytale retelling, with difficult themes of incest and rape, but for me it stands out in a genre full of happy-ever-after stories. The language and the setting are both very typical for a western-European fairytale, and this gives an effective frame for some particularly brutal and gritty plot elements.

In this version, the princess is beaten and raped by her father, and both she and her beloved dog Ash are left for dead. They barely manage to escape, and find a meagre shelter. A major theme of the book is about Lissar dealing with what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, as she first blanks out what has happened to her, and then gradually has to remember it piece by piece and come to terms with it.

However, if this all sounds rather heavy, let me reassure you that this isn’t a depressing book at all. Lissar’s journey to understand what has happened to her, and to not let herself be defined by it, is uplifting and believable. Her relationship with Ash is adorable, and the romance is understated and sensitively handles the difficulties that a survivor of sexual assault would have in their subsequent relationships. It’s also very impressive that the reader is kept engaged by the story which, for a large part, features only Lissar and Ash (as Lissar cannot bring herself to form relationships with others).

Deerskin is a perfect example of when a fairytale retelling does not simply have to retell an old story as a shortcut to a plot, but can provide a safe framework within which to sensitively explore much darker material.

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