Poison. Book Review

poisonPOISON by Sarah Pinborough

Gollancz, h/b, 208pp £9.99, eBook £4.99

Reviewed by Chris Limb

It’s Snow White, but not as you know her…

…although that may depend upon how you interpreted the story when first reading it as a child.  Different types of children will read fairy tales in different ways. If during your childhood you always found yourself rooting for the baddies – whether the wicked witch, the evil queen or the big bad wolf – then Poison is a modern retelling that you will almost certainly enjoy.

The central character here is Queen Lilith, the Wicked Stepmother. Her machinations show that she does indeed live up to this epithet  – but she is given such a rich backstory that readers can’t help but empathise with her (even if they weren’t that sort of child).  The first half of the tale is pretty much seen through her eyes and although few of her actions can be condoned they can at least all be understood, such is the skill with which her thoughts are depicted.

This is an unhappy woman trapped in a marriage to an oafish king; she uses what power she has – whether magical, political or sexual – to further her own ends.  If only she could be more like Snow White she might have a chance at happiness. Failing that, if only Snow White would just go away…

Snow White herself is a long way from the bland cypher familiar from Disney or pantomime. Though undoubtedly a beauty she lives life on her own terms, refusing to conform to traditional notions of princess and inadvertently rubbing Lilith up the wrong way at every turn…

Most of the elements familiar to readers from their knowledge of this tale are here – the dwarves, the apple, the magic mirror and the handsome prince – although none quite as they may expect. Furthermore there is the distinct feeling that the world in which this tale takes place is a pocket universe, home to all fairy stories – an impression heightened by cameos from Aladdin, Hansel and Gretel.

Perhaps particularly unexpected in the context of fairy tales are the sex scenes. However far from being incongruous they form an essential part of the story and furthermore are so well described (despite clearly not being included for titillation purposes they are unashamedly erotic) that they give the characters a solid verisimilitude. Sex is part of everyone’s life and its depiction should be no more or less shocking than characters sitting down for a good meal.

Poison is in some ways a return to the original dark world of the Brothers Grimm, although Pinborough shows that through twenty first century eyes the inherent misogyny and injustice built into these traditional fairy tale worlds is equally as wicked as any spell or curse and perhaps infinitely more difficult to fight.

When the odds are stacked against you it would be foolish to hope for a happy ever after.