Emma Donoghue – Kissing the Witch

Because of the Dumbledore’s Army readathon, my first book of the year was a fantastic and diverse read. I chose this book first because it’s short and I needed to start 2017 with a feeling of success. So, yay, for reading my first book on the first day of the year. And double-yay for it being a great read!

kissing the witchKISSING THE WITCH
by Emma Donoghue

Published by: Harper Collins, 1997
Ebook: 228 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Till she came it was all cold.

Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances–sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed. Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire.
Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories about power and transformation and choosing one’s own path in the world. In these fairy tales, women young and old tell their own stories of love and hate, honor and revenge, passion and deception. Using the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.


Twisted fairy tales are nothing new, not even genderbent ones, so it takes a bit more to impress me. Emma Donoghue doesn’t stray too far off the path in her versions of the most famous and well-known fairy tales. She revisits Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Rumpelstilstkin, and many more. The plot doesn’t change all that and the main hook appears to be that almost all fairy tale couples end up to be two women. Whether it’s Cinderella who falls for her fairy godmother or Beauty who discovers what is really behind Beast’s mask, if there is romance, it’s between women.

But that’s not what I found so amazing (although it is wonderfully refreshing). It wasn’t even the plot or the way Donoghue tells her stories that I found extraordinary. Even the structure of this collection is a fairly obvious one. At the end of each tale, the protagonist asks another character about their tale. They tell it and at the end of their tale, they, in turn, ask a character they met about their story. And so it goes on and on until the end of the collection. This has been done many times before and it has been done with fairy tales as well, but despite that, the structure drew my attention to something amazing.

We all know fairy tales are terrible to women and children. You can either be a beautiful but vapid princess, a fairy (godmother), or a villainous, jealous, evil female antagonist. And either way, horrible things will happen to you in a fairy tale. But what I had never noticed until now is how many fairy tales, especially Donoghue’s versions, have exactly two important female characters, the two who really carry the story, never mind the prince. Without the godmother, Cinderella would never make it to the ball. Without the witch, the little mermaid would just have to live without her prince. Without the jealous mother, Snow White would have grown up like a normal child. And since each story in Emma Donoghue’s collection invariably ends with one woman asking another about her story, it becomes obvious that every fairy tale has at least two female characters who do meaningful stuff. I loved that and I am going to pay closer attention when I read my next fairy tale retellings.


What I didn’t like so much is how carelessly these connections between tales were made. You must remember that we meet each story teller in somebody else’s story first. So the horse in The Goose Girl apparently used to be Rapunzel – which is totally fine if you use some handwavium to explain that away (I mean, come on! Different species! Yet the damn horse only tells the Rapunzel story, not how it went from woman to horse… that’s a tale I’d gladly read any day.) but Emma Donoghue never does and never even bothers to mention the gaps between fairy tales. The little “connections” between these tales may sound nice enough and be useful as a sort of bridge between single stories but they make no sense whatsoever. And that makes them feel gimmicky and cheap.

But I never intended to read this collection as one larger story. I had no trouble enjoying every tale on its own merits, and these merits are pretty good. Donoghue writes beautifully and changes tone according to the tale told and who is telling it. As with any collection, I liked certain tales better than others, but I definitely enjoyed the variety. Sometimes we see things from the princess’ point of view, sometimes the villain’s. This is neither the most beautifully written I’ve ever read, nor the most original, nor the one with the cleverest twists. But I absolutely enjoyed every page of this collection and how it puts women front and center and allows them to take back the stories which have treated them so terribly.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good


One thought on “Emma Donoghue – Kissing the Witch

  1. A.M.B. says:

    “I mean, come on! Different species! Yet the damn horse only tells the Rapunzel story, not how it went from woman to horse… that’s a tale I’d gladly read any day.”

    Ha! This review is hilarious. I enjoyed reading it.


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