Sally Emerson has written six novels, the first, Second Sight, published over forty years ago in 1980 and the last more than twenty years ago. A new collection of stories, Perfect, marks her return to fiction. Although retaining many recognizable features of her work, including strong female characters and gothic twists set in a distinctly upper-middle-class milieu, it is in some ways quite unlike her earlier books.
The seven modern fairy tales that feature here are laced with an energetic magical realism. Each fable subtly alludes to the familiar themes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm – childless families, endangered children, mysterious love potions, forewarnings of death, witches, warlocks, and familiars – but all are grounded in a charming world of Oxbridge colleges, fashionable London postcodes and smart suburbia.
Hansel and Gretel are upgraded to the undergraduates Charlie and Elinor, lodging with Mrs Watson, a witch who lives in a perfect house with Pugin-inspired wallpaper. A register office clerk, whose life is blighted by the burden of caring for her aged, infirm and difficult father, magically receives post-dated death certificates, saves lives and finds love. A young mother, grieving her lost career and independence, is sold vitamin supplements by an elfish, or perhaps Pied Piper-like, shop assistant who dances around the shelves, “picking up the various bottles, jars and packets” as she prosaically follows him with her wire shopping basket. The pills cause uncontrollable lust; mild chaos ensues. A childless couple opt for cloning with the help of a mysterious Ukrainian professor. Will the tragedy of the father’s youth be repeated for his son and clone? A stormy transatlantic crossing leads to an illicit liaison and a fortunate conception for another couple, and ultimately a release from a traumatic and coercive relationship. A Cambridge art historian meets a strangely familiar pair at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He names them “the chess queen” and “the juggler”, and soon begins to see them everywhere, both in the present and the past.
Emerson’s writing is at times quite profound. One protagonist, a grandmother, is so happy with her lot that “death held no dominion anymore”. Another is a lecturer in Homeric epic, and Emerson quotes extensively from the Iliad to illustrate the caprice of divine interference in the mortal world: seen or unseen hands manipulate the lives and worlds in all the tales. The plotlines are consistently compelling…