(Unsettling Wonder, 2017)
Fantasy almost always admits to being Fantasy, always contains that moment of recognition of being story. Fairytales are arguably more explicit on this point than other fantasies, being dependent on familiarity for affect.
Claire Dean’s stories collected here have something of fairytale and fantasy about them, yet most also eschew that knowing declaration of story. Here be, not dragons, but bird women, miniature cities and transformations. Usually however, these fabulations don’t acknowledge anything magical. In her best stories Dean makes the quotidian marvellous.
Take opener ‘Raven’ where only the epigraph from Grimm even tentatively recognises anything abnormal about a baby transformed into a bird. The narrator is more concerned with looking after what is still her child, than with how or why.
“I’d always said there was no way I was breastfeeding her once she got teeth. I hadn’t expected a beak.”
Birds in human form, or women in avian form, occur in Feather Girls too. This matter of fact telling of a man meeting his feather girl date in a pub exemplifies one of Dean’s traits. That defining characteristic of fairytale that Marina Warner identifies, the happy ending, has arguably already happened. That recognition occurs outwith the text.
“‘You have to catch their coats whilst they’re young.’ That’s was the saying he’d been brought up with”
But he has been meeting her for years, and he hasn’t trapped her. We get the feeling she would allow it but they don’t. There’s acceptance but an understated longing too.
In subsequent stories Dean returns repeatedly to the idea of a miniature city or town being nested within our world. Characters flow between here and what I want to call not-here rather than there. ‘There’ is a specific place even when mysterious and unknown. Claire Dean evokes a non-place, abstract and displaced from the world. It is interstitial to such stories as “Growing Cities” and “Glass, Bricks, Dust” and particularly the poignant farewell to an old woman: ‘Stone Sea’ which reflects Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant. That French surrealist anti-novel provides the quote prefacing these stories:
“New myths spring up beneath each step we take.”
If Claire Dean is creating new myths she sits in a long tradition of feminist writers retelling fairytales back through Le Guin, Saxton, Carter, McKinley, Goldstein, Winterson or Attwood. Her way isn’t the eroticism or the assertive role changes of some of these writers or the overt retelling of the too familiar tale. Like much of their work however these stories sit outside their putative genre.
Only ‘The Silent Kingdom’ and ‘The Woman Who Wore Frost Slippers’ fully adopt a fairytale voice with more generic characters identified as the princess, the old woman etc. The former story lays bare its nature from the first line:
“Once there was and there was not a Kingdom wrapped in silence.” That sounds like a classic fairytale opening but then there’s that twist. Was and was not. Fantasy and fairytale are generally self-contained. They work to internal rules that may not be our world. Here Dean may have broken that, by telling us not to believe all we see. The genre linkage are fractured and, I think, hesitant.
Returning to the other stories here, Dean writes a clear, mundane detailed real world. The descriptions are spare but precise. As far as I can tell only two stories specify a geographical setting: the disturbing ‘Moth Light’ with its implied Manchester and feminist depiction of lost identity in a relationship; and the Blackpool seafront of the title story which liberates that lost identity. Somehow many of the rest convey that universality of the run-down English resort without names. She utilises familiarity in the setting to ground the fantastic rather than contrast it. This is clearly our world and clearly not our world. “Once there was and there was not” It is a world where things happen differently but not unexpectedly. It is there and not-there.
Claire Dean photograph by Kev McVeigh
A baby is a wondrous thing, she is no more or less wondrous or loveable or anxiety-provoking for being a Raven at times. A date with a loved one is special regardless of her feathers. A neglected memory is no more poignant for being a preserved living shadow in a museum.
The fantastic element enhances the mimetic rather than the more usual reverse. It is here that Claire Dean’s stories work best for me. There are transformations in some stories but overall it is a change of viewpoint about something largely outwith the story. Several stories imply a protagonist/narrator becoming what she initially was viewing and so looking out where she looked in. ‘Marionettes’ originally published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, is a particularly disturbing example.
There are anxieties and loss throughout the collection but there’s an acceptance of this too. A sense of control and peace ultimately pervades the collection. The stories are all short, (14 across 116 illustrated pages.) so whilst Wrongness isn’t always apparent even in the several stories of death, such as the drowned village of Chorden-under-water, there is Recognition which may not look like a happy ending Disney-style, but is often a Healing implicit beyond The End.
Claire Dean’s stories are fairytales and fantasy and are not fairytales or fantasy. They balance on the cusp, reflecting or casting shadows. Reflections are familiar but not quite right. So too are the northern coastal towns and people living in these stories. The stories are charming and poignant but disturbing too. They are short, rich in dark flavours, and memorable. The Museum of Shadows and Reflections is a remarkable collection. You cannot seek it out to buy it now, like the mysterious travel agency to another world, when you come back the next day, it is gone.*
Illustration by Laura Rae for ‘Feather Girls’
*The book was funded on advance orders and the publisher only printed enough for those who ordered. So only 110 copies were made. Some of Claire’s work can be read here