Bi Book Club: Kissing the Witch
By Siobhan Ball
October 13, 2022
Photo credit: Pexels/Joy Marino
Emma Donaghue's Kissing the Witch is a compelling collection of reimagined fairy tales layered inside each other, lurid, ecstatic and horrifying by turns. Featuring women of every orientation the book is an exploration of the female sexuality embedded within fairy tales as well as a reclamation of it, and a reclamation of the agency so many of those narratives were designed to deny.
Starting with Cinderella, as she grapples with the realization that the mysterious godmother who arrived just before the ball is far more in line with what she wants than any prince, the first story ends with a series of questions that shove the book's narrative journey into motion. "Who were you before this?" Cinders asks her godmother-turned-lover, words that become a ritual refrain throughout the book, exposing and resolving the major void in fairytales as we know them. All those other women, the foils, fairies, and evil queens, who have no story or motivations of their own outside of their impact on the young, beautiful, fertile, virgin the story revolves around ― and whose actions if we consider them at all make very little sense without a whole heap of missing backstory to explain them. Like each woman that comes after her in the litany of stories within a story, the godmother returns the ritual response of "will I tell you my story" before launching right in, allowing Donaghue to fill in those blanks and grant the older, secondary women of fairy tales personhood of their own.
Some of the stories veer towards the realistic, filled with fairy tale tropes and imagery but not mapping on to any one story in particular. The godmother finds herself living somewhere between Beauty and Bluebeard's wife, plucked from servitude for a lovingly gilded cage by an adoring but controlling noble husband, with no magic coming in until the talking bird at the end. Reincarnation appears, with animals that remember their past lives, as princesses or their animal companions, a sole note of surreality and the fantastic in an otherwise very human life or death drama. Some stories stick entirely to the human and the every day, exploring generational trauma, disability and misogyny and the places they intersect, while others are very clearly fairytales re-examined or inverted with all the magic that requires.
One of the things Donaghue does particularly well is tackle the subject of abuse, particularly the seemingly softer and less recognizable kinds. Sleeping Beauty's parents love her so much and so selfishly that their love turns toxic, imprisoning and isolating her to the point that they kill her kitten for scratching her in play. The whole story is dripping with their love, with the softness of the affection they show her, while also denying her any meaningful connections beyond themselves, and attempting to keep her a perpetual child with no purpose or passions of her own. Rapunzel's witch mother preys on her, pretending to be a prince courting her blind daughter at night, only to cry outrage the next day and lay the blame at Rapunzel's feet. Rapunzel's disgust and betrayal are met with the classic abuser lines of "I did this for you, it hurts me more, I'm the real victim here", and yet she is still there when her mother injures herself in a display of manipulative remorse, comforting and caring for her.
Donaghue's depiction of bisexuality is seamless and different with each character as it is for bis in real life. Cinderella's godmother's desire is raw and present in the chapter told from her perspective but also natural and doesn't overpower any other element of the story. Snow White's Queen on the other hand is a creature made entirely of desperate wanting, clawing for love and safety at once, with that mix of longing and fear shaping her relationship with her stepdaughter from the moment they meet as girls. Attempted murders and gifts of fruit and dresses to lure her home all tangle together as one desire wins out over the other, before flowing into the story of another relationship with another princess, a prince, and lies that built on each other when Snow has her tell her tale in turn.
In short, this is a fantastic book that I read in one long, intensely satisfying stretch without even pausing long enough to replace my empty cup of tea. Donaghue's lyrical prose is powerful and compelling, forcing you into her nesting doll of a narrative and leaving you with that warm, satisfied and slightly dazed feeling that only a really good book can. Exploring the psychology and sexuality of fairy tales, along with the issues of misogyny, sexual assault and familial violence in an incisive yet sensitive way, Kissing the Witch answers questions you didn't know you had - while providing fully realised and nuanced depictions of bisexuality.