Not My Book: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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Title: The Bloody Chamber
Author: Angela Carter
Original Publication Date: 1979
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy
Rating: 2/5 stars

One of my reading resolutions this year was to read more short stories. I seem to have have this mental block about short stories where anytime I read or hear someone say “There’s this great short story collection…” my brain instantly starts hearing the wah-wah-wah sound of the teacher from the Peanuts. But I’m trying to grow as a reader, so I picked up The Bloody Chamber. It’s been on my TBR forever and on my bookshelf for months. In theory, there’s a lot I should like here: ten short stories, reinterpretations of classic fairy tales with a feminist twist. I like fairy tales. I like retellings. I like feminism. How could I not enjoy this?

Honestly, I don’t know. The Bloody Chamber certainly delivers on its promise. Each story takes a classic (or slightly less than classic) tale and twists it. The results are a little gothic, a little creepy, a little sexy. Carter is playing with gender and sex in interesting ways, creating strong, empowered heroines who turn some of the classic tropes of fairy tales on their heads.

But… the stories just felt impenetrable to me. I felt like I was missing something, as if  Carter must be doing something genius because this book is so well-regarded, and I’m just too stupid to appreciate it. For example:

He strips me to my last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, pearlized satin, like a skinned rabbit; then dresses me again in an embrace so lucid and encompassing it might be made of water. And shakes over me dead leaves as if into the stream I have become.
Sometimes the birds, at random, all singing, strike a chord.
His skin covers me entirely; we are like two halves of a seed, enclosed in the same integument.
I should like to grow enormously small, so that you could swallow me, like those queens in fairy tales who conceive when they swallow a grain of corn or a sesame seed. Then I could lodge inside your body and you would bear me.

I read this passage and my brain just goes back to the Peanuts teacher wah-wah-wah voice. I know that these words must mean something, that it’s probably considered beautiful, masterful writing, and that I just don’t get it.

There are passages like this throughout these stories, and I’d find myself skimming over them, trying to get to the part where something intelligible happens. And then I’d find myself feeling guilty and a little ashamed as a reader. Short stories are short! It stands to reason that every word is carefully selected, meant to convey something important about mood, character, theme, etc. And my big dumb brain was just searching for some plot to grab onto because it was too shallow to appreciate anything else. And then I’d get a little angry because what business does this have making me feel dumb! It was all downhill from there.

So yeah… that all happened. I’m glad I read this book and I can see that there are things here that a lot of readers would appreciate and enjoy. I’d even consider recommending to the right reader. For me though? The Bloody Chamber is most definitely not my book.

3 comments

  1. Whoa. First, excellent review. Second, I have a Master’s in English Lit and I DEFINITELY am in your boat for the unintelligible passages. That imagery is not sexy at all. In facts it uses predator-prey terminology (skinned rabbit) to push sexuality. I feel this may not be understandable to you because you might have a healthy grasp on sexuality … and what it’s not supposed to be. Don’t feel stupid for not understanding the bizarre things that were clearly going on here. Also, I feel like this review made it possible for me to avoid spending time and money on something super twisted and not necessarily rewarding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback (and for confirming my impressions)! I will say there were a few stories (particularly the Beauty & the Beast ones) where the writing was stripped down, and consequently the story was pretty enjoyable. By and large though…it mostly read like the passage I pulled out.

      Liked by 1 person

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