Beauty by Sheri S Tepper

Our fifth choice in this season of folk and fairytale retellings is the only book on the list to feature science fiction elements.

beautyMaybe I’ve reminded Papa of the curse and he has nailed me into the tower to protect me!

It would be nice to believe that, nicer than believing he has shut me up to starve out of pure pique. However, if Mama’s Aunt Carabosse managed to get to my christening without an invitation, it is unlikely she would be forestalled by my being locked in a tower.

I do not want to spend the next hundred years lying in this tower room, waiting for some prince to happen by, however charming he may be. The idea is intensely unpleasant and frightening!

It is 1347, and as her sixteenth birthday approaches, Beauty waits for the magical curse that is her fate, trying to avoid spindles and spinning wheels, and her indifferent father and wicked stepmother. But when the inevitable happens, it is not Beauty who succumbs but her illegitimate twin sister Beloved. Beauty escapes, and resolves to find her absent faery mother, who left when she was just a baby. However, just as she is setting out she stumbles across some time travellers from 2091, who kidnap her and take her back to their nightmarish, post-apocalyptic future. And so she begins a long and wondering journey, through different centuries and places both real and imaginary.

It’s very difficult to neatly sum up what ‘Beauty’ is about, as it incorporates so many themes, but the two main threads of the novel are firstly an environmental one, as Beauty has seen the destruction of the natural world in the late 21st century, she views the beauty around her in other times through this prism. And secondly, it explores the whole of a woman’s life — for centuries, Sleeping Beauty has been the archetypal female ideal: passive and eternally young, but in this version she takes control of her own fate and lives to be over a hundred.

It’s a wild ride, using elements from fantasy, folklore, science fiction, Christianity, and so many fairytales — the main plot of the book is Sleeping Beauty, but we also visit, among others, Cinderella, Snow White, The Frog Prince, and Tam Lin. The writer AS Byatt once wrote that ‘fairytales form the narrative grammar of our minds’, and that encapsulates how they are put to particularly good use here — we know how these stories are supposed to go, but the stories aren’t the important part, it’s how we look at them through Beauty’s eyes, as she ages and learns more about her place in the world from them.

If this all sounds rather heavy and moralistic, then luckily Beauty is a compelling central character and engaging narrator of her story, and you want to follow her. And after she has spent some time in the 1990s, she becomes more relatable — at one point she stumbles into the story of Cinderella, and remembers watching the Disney version! There are some very funny moments — I particularly liked the bit where Beauty invests money in the 14th century, so that she can withdraw a fortune in the 20th, but has to fabricate a whole load of genealogical documents for the intervening centuries to prove her claim!

It’s not the easiest nor the quickest book I’ve read for this series, but it has stayed with me ever since I finished it, and I won’t be able to look at Sleeping Beauty in quite the same way ever again.

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