Not a Fairy Tale by Shaida Kazie Ali, Umuzi, 2010.*
(*This review is the text of the author’s commendation speech at the University of Johannesburg Literary Prize ceremony, 18 August, 2011. Ali’s novel won the debut prize.)
Fairy tales are, as we all know, populated by milky-white princesses with long tresses and silver dresses. They are also populated by Princes Charming in every respect: good looks, good biceps, good breath. Witches, always female, are incontrovertibly recognisable as such, horrid in appearance and intention. Fathers are noble hunters who fall under the spell of wicked stepmothers but see the error of their ways. The fairy tale is securely contained within a past – far, far way, to quote a well-known ogre – and the happy ending is equally assured and unambiguous.
So no, this is not a fairy tale. It has no milky white princesses, but rather two very recognisable Muslim young women who do all the things that princesses never do: they bleed, they delve in magic and superstition, they know that princes are neither princely nor charming, and they plot revenge. They laugh and love and go mad and bear children. Neither are the witches consistently horrid, but rather mothers and aunts who morph from superficial villainy into sources of wise counsel. Hunter-fathers are cruel and unrepentant. The tale is placed in the gritty present of South Africa and the happy ending is laced with a bittersweet ambiguity.
This fine debut novel tells the coming-of-age stories of two Muslim sisters: Zuhra and Salena Paruk, growing up in an abusive family during apartheid, their growth into adulthood paralleling that of South Africa’s transition into nationhood in 1994. The sisters act as doubles or opposites: Zuhra is head-strong and defiant, refusing to accede to her parents incessant demands despite the violence that they inflict on her. Dark-skinned and rebellious, Zuhra resists the spells of social tradition with a feisty rebellion that frees her from the bramble thorns of convention and self-denial.
By contrast, Salena’s tale is one in which the myths are shaded in a more delicate, melancholy way. Older than Zuhra by ten years, and a princess in all outward respects – even to the pale shade of her skin – Salena is shown to be a victim of the same expectations and traditions that Zuhra rejects. As her story progresses, she slips ever deeper into a kind of madness that is apparent only to those attuned to the cold trenchancy of tradition. Married by her parents’ decree to a man who she does not, nor will not love, she becomes desolate in her ivory suburban tower. Her ending, while a happy one in certain respects, comes at a terrible price, and only after a life that not even Cinderella would be expected to endure.
But while this appears to be a novel about two sisters, it soon becomes apparent that it is haunted by a third figure. The Prologue introduces this shadow tantalizingly:
Once upon a time there were two sisters, Salena and Zuhra. If this were a fairytale, there’d have been three: the older two ugly and avaricious, the younger one beautiful and kind. (She’s the one who’d get the prince.) But this is no fairytale, so two is all you’re going to get.
But in fact we do get three. If you listen very carefully, you might hear the voice of another, unborn child, a soul aborted, we discover at the end of the novel, before her "one-hundred and twenty day milestone [can] be reached so that [she] can be fused with her body", for whom "all that was left" was to "stay on as an observer, to watch Salena and Faruk grow up, and, most surprisingly of all witness Zuhra smile at me and shrug philosophically as she crawled into a space under our mother’s skin" (171). As I have said, this is not a conventional ending, nor is it an unambiguous one, so I hope the author will look kindly upon my sense that it is this unborn sister who presides over the novel, who is its ghostly narrator, who tells Salena’s story, who allows Zuhra to tell her own, and who, most importantly, provides the wonderfully imaginative re-telling of tales that are scattered throughout both Zuhra and Salena’s accounts.
The traditions of the fairy tale might be rejected in this novel, but they are not simply abandoned. Instead, they are replaced with a gleeful subversion of plots and archetypes. Cinderella does not wish to go to the Ball, but rather to the Library; Red Riding Hood is convincingly wooed by the not so Big Bad Woolf in a letter that his therapist has told him to write, and neither Sleeping Beauty nor Snow White really want to be woken up at all. Prince Charming "has to be Muslim – he’s married to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella" (136). The wolf in the tale of the three little pigs also turns out to be Muslim, and so not only does he refrain from eating them, but he gives them a restaurant in his new franchise and they live happily ever after.
The suggestion that Zuhra is shadowed in some sense by this ghostly narrator is borne out by her uncanny ability to cast magic spells into grim reality, and to weave biting alternatives to fantasy into her own worldview. For example, she regards Faruk as a toad in the tradition of many a bewitched prince, but without the transformation: "If you say his name fast enough, with lots of rrrrrs, it sounds like a frog croaking. Farrrrukparrrruk. I think he is a frog or a toad. Something slimy and cold." She christens a hateful teacher "Mr Rumpelforeskin" and concludes, after hearing that Catholic nuns style themselves as "brides of Christ", that He, too, must be a Muslim, being in possession of so many spouses.
In her judge’s report on the novel, Ronit Frenkel makes the astute comment that these revised fairy tales "draw attention to Zuhra and Salena’s options while simultaneously highlighting how women do not live happily ever after unless they redefine the very structure of the fairy tale. The fairy tale, then, really becomes a matter of choice and of the value of the intellect – the very things women have not had access to or been treasured for historically."
Craig Mackenzie, in his report, also commends the novel’s simultaneous rejection of and engagement with the fairy tale. He writes that, "[i]ts title notwithstanding, this is a fairy tale, albeit one with hard edges. In the end Salena smashes the mirror into which she numbly looked on her wedding day. A shard buries itself in her toad-like husband's neck and this heralds the beginning of a new life for her. Immaculately written, rich and varied, this debut promises much."