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Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen (thoughts)

January 17, 2013

Winter's Tales
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.
15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2013 8:03 am

    I so want to read more Isak Dinesen this year. I, too, adore her style and her imagination. Such a wonderful writer who isn’t read enough. I’m so glad you loved this one!

  2. January 17, 2013 8:23 am

    Oh these sound wonderful! I’ve been thinking of reading Seven Gothic Tales, but maybe I’ll go with this one instead.

    • January 18, 2013 7:50 pm

      Seven Gothic Tales is excellent too! I read that a few years ago & loved it, but somehow Winter’s Tales really stole my heart. I don’t think you could go wrong w either. :)

  3. January 17, 2013 8:46 am

    This sounds irresistible, Eva. I love the passage you quoted; Dinesen was such a beautiful writer and it has been too long since I last read something by her.

    • January 18, 2013 7:50 pm

      I think it’d be right up your alley!

  4. January 17, 2013 9:03 am

    I’ve always been curious about reading Dinesen – my dad didn’t think I’d like her, so I took his advice years ago and steered away – but I think perhaps I’ll try her after all. Thanks for the lovely review.

    • January 18, 2013 7:51 pm

      Maybe your reading tastes have changed since your dad made his rec? It’s always worth a try: at worst, you can just stop reading! ;)

  5. January 17, 2013 2:39 pm

    I have only read Seven Gothic Tales. She truly is a master storyteller!

  6. January 17, 2013 3:19 pm

    Oooh, I read Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest last year (all about fairytales, their origins and place in society) and have been looking for some more tales that have that combination of magic and much needed escape from reality. This sounds like it fits the bill perfectly. :)

    • January 18, 2013 7:51 pm

      I’m in my library hold’s list for that book, which has just been released Stateside (slightly different title though). Can’t wait for it to arrive!

  7. Steve permalink
    January 17, 2013 4:09 pm

    Hi Eva, I’m really keen to know how you select which books you’ll read. Do you simply scan the bookshop/library shelves for something that catches your eye? Or do you do as I do, and read on the recommendation of others and reviews?

  8. January 18, 2013 9:15 am

    I was thinking of Byatt’s short collection, Little Black Book of Stories, as I read your review, Eva. This type of collection is right up my alley. Have added to my wishlist! :)

    • January 18, 2013 7:52 pm

      I almost put Little Black Book of Stories (which was my v first Byatt read way back when I was 15) in the recs instead of Possession too! It was so hard to narrow it down to one Byatt. ;)

  9. January 20, 2013 1:56 pm

    I’m not a fan of purple prose generally, as it can so easily become inert for me, but my enjoyment last year of the Hans Christian Andersen’s story collection makes me want to read more Danish authors writing in a fantastical way.

  10. boardinginmyforties permalink
    January 30, 2013 1:40 pm

    Love the excerpt and will add the book to my list.

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