Fairy tales are ripe for adaptation, with their morals explicitly laid out and traditional character archetypes strong. Granted, not every fairy tale retelling captures the spirit of the original tale while troubling them, reshaping a known story into something wholly unique, but when they do, they stick around. A well-crafted fable retelling suggests these same morals extend into the present day like Behind This Mirror by Lena Bertone (Bull City Press, 2020) does, accomplishing this through its complex points of view, proclivity to the flash fiction form, and contemporary feminist lens.
Bertone gathers 22 pieces of flash and short fiction into 54 concise pages in Behind This Mirror. Almost all of these stories are one or two pages long; the longest (“Constants”) maxes out at nine pages long. Rather than following a traditional story arc or Freytag’s pyramid, Bertone uses the power of flash to offer an impactful glimpse rather than the full story. These differences from traditional forms continue into point of view, which is constantly shifting. Some stories are told in close first, others in distant third or omniscient, some narrators known and described, others never named. The unknowability of these narrators as we see glimpses into their lives adds to the inherent relatability at the core of these stories: a good fable, after all, portrays a moral lesson that anyone reading it can pick up, and the fluidity of narrators allows for greater opportunities for self-insertion.
Behind This Mirror slides easily into conversation with Angela Carter’s work, particularly her similar collection of short fairy tale retellings, The Bloody Chamber. Published in 1979, Carter relies on an image of femininity that goes directly against social prescriptions: women are not only strong and independent, saving themselves, they save each other through familial relationships, friendships, and literal acts of strength, such as in the titular story based on Perrault’s original Bluebeard myth, in which the protagonist is saved by her mother rather than her brothers. Almost all of Carter’s protagonists, whether they are good or morally gray, are women. Behind This Mirror’s protagonists are similarly female-dominated and portrayed as strong women, but are developed beyond Carter’s archetype disruptions: they have desires, feelings, and actions that go both with and against the social grain. Where Carter’s protagonists are sexual femme fatales, Bertone’s protagonists are often seen as unattractive by society but embrace the things that make them unique. Put simply, Behind This Mirror disrupts the idea that the archetype of a strong woman is one who is tough. Even when they are not brave or strong or able to stand up for themselves, or are, again, not physically attractive—such as in “Seven Sisters” where each of the sisters’ major source of beauty is described in contrast to the stark ugliness of the rest of their bodies, like the sister Sesta whose “eyebrows take minimal grooming, and then they are like artwork on her otherwise hideous face” (15)—Bertone shows that these women have value not in spite of their unattractive features but by simply being alive.
The gender politics of this collection are nuanced and do their best to promote women’s empowerment but also show the disempowerment of individuals, particularly queer and transgender people, that comes frequently in romantic situations. In many traditional fairy tales, the story arc follows a heterosexual couple falling truly and deeply in love, and the story ends at the beginning of the romance, where “happily ever after” is not only achievable but the only answer. Each of the relationships in Behind This Mirror are either framed at the end of the relationship (such as in the opening story, “Stories for Next Time,” and “Self-Portrait”) or feature a non-romantic familial relationship (particularly between mothers and daughters, such as in “Patch” and “Missing”). There are a few sideways glances towards the idea of queer relationships or the existence of transgender individuals. However, this is primarily through threesomes to please a king-turned-husband and going to Thailand for “the operation [Rumpelstiltskin] was sure would make him the person he was meant to be” (10). Even in revisionist fairy tales where transformation is not uncommon and the socially unattractive embrace their features with compelling self-acceptance and love, traditional social norms still hold strong influence over what is and isn’t possible.
What Bertone does to disrupt the idea of falling in love being a linear path held forever, on the other hand, is strong. One of the best examples lies in two parallel stories: “The Woman Who Waxed and Waned” and “Exactly 69% of This Sad, True Story is True.” In the former, two childhood sweethearts marry and have a daughter but the wife falls ill, her husband leaves her, but she heals and they get back together to have a happy family. In the latter, it is the exact same text, but 30% of the ending has been crossed out: “But, instead of [her life] ending, years passed
, and as they did, her gaunt cheeks began to fill again with flesh and fat, and sometimes, when she spoke, words came perfectly formed from her lips.” (35) The truth that comes from the 69% of the story that is supposedly true is that the happy ending isn’t actually achievable, despite what one may hope.
Behind This Mirror opens a brief window into what the gritty reality of fairy tales may look like in contemporary contexts with grace. It touches upon the grit and dust of our world delicately, leaving that space behind the magic mirror for us to explore.
Lee Anderson is a nonbinary writer from the American -west with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. They have been published sporadically but with zest, forthcoming or appearing in places such as The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Unstamatic Magazine.