Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen (thoughts)
Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen is a short story collection with a gothic, fairy tale feel. These stories are fae-like not so much because of explicit magic or fairies but because the tone is highly stylised, characters are a bit slippery and often not quite human, events follow unpredictable, oddly inexplicable paths, and the endings are frequently left wide open without a moral in sight. I adored them. I suspect many of my fellow bloggers will as well.
Writing in her native Denmark in the 1940s (and thus during a Nazi-occupation), Dinesen wished to create ‘old fashioned’ stories that presented the past through a Romanticist-tinged lens. To do so, she uses complex, lyrical prose that casts such a strong spell I could almost see her sitting by a fire side, telling me the stories as we both clutched woolen blankets more tightly around ourselves. Here’s a taste:
The low, undulating Danish landscape was silent and serene, mysteriously wide-awake in the hour before sunrise. There was not a cloud in the pale sky, not a shadow along the dim, pearly fields, hills and woods. The mist was lifting from the valleys and hollows, the air was cool, the grass and foliage dripping wet with morning-dew. Unwatched by the eyes of man, and undisturbed by his activity, the country breathed a timeless life, to which language was inadequate.
The structure of her stories matches that of her language; each one feels like a Baroque jewel: complete in itself and inviting contemplation. I was so enchanted I felt more than a bit bereft when I finished the final one.
Winter’s Tales brought me into a world where mysterious children enter households that will never be the same, where men and women search their souls for passions to live and die by, where the land and sea are as fearsome as they are beautiful, and where just occasionally the supernatural becomes visible. The characters and stories are all striking I imagine they’ll stay with me forever, and I feel thrilled that I have a copy for my very own so that I can dip back into it whenever I wish. I highly recommend this to those who love ‘purple prose’ as Anne might call it or Scandinavian lit or literary fantasy or gothic romance and of course to anyone who secretly half believes in ghosts and faeries and wise old women and epic heroes.
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Love Child by Edith Olivier : another story about a mysterious child that has a fey like feel, although Olivier’s writing is natural rather than stylised.
- Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi : Oyeyemi is even less willing to spell things out for the reader than Dinesen in, but that simply makes this riff on Bluebeard even more enchanting.
- The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford : with its thoughtfulness, dense prose, and inclusion of fairy tales, I think this bookish memoir has a similar feel.
- Possession by A.S. Byatt: Byatt is a queen of stylised writing, and I debated for a while between this and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye). But ultimately I included her most famous work because of its perfectly convincing pastiche approach all done by Byatt herself.