A Wild Swan and Other Tales
by Michael Cunningham (author) and Yuko Shimizu (illustrator)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2015, 144 pages, 6.4 x 8.5 x 0.7 inches
A few pages into A Wild Swan and Other Tales we're stopped short by a narrator who is either supremely cynical or just brutally honest: "End of story. 'Happily ever after' fell on everyone like a guillotine's blade." But that abrupt point of stoppage, it turns out, is the vulnerable moment onto which Michael Cunningham can graft fresh possibilities. In this case, he builds on Hans Christian Andersen's version of "The Wild Swans" by imagining a trajectory for the least fortunate swan-brother, the one whose incomplete coat of nettles transformed him back into a man but left him with a "linty, dispiriting" wing where his arm should be.
In this collection of eleven stories, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Hours plucks and tweaks at familiar fairy tales in a variety of ways – through POV changes, time shifts, reimagined elements, and most especially an irresistible voice that's by turns sardonic, salacious, or brimming with empathy. "Little Man" gives us the motivations behind Rumpelstiltskin's baby mania. "Jacked" believably paints the beanstalk climber as dumb and lucky. "The Monkey's Paw" locates another haunting angle on W.W. Jacobs' tale about the cruel side of wishes.
Based only on its literary merits, A Wild Swan would already be worth your time – but this book is special. Masterful pen-and-ink illustrations, drop caps, endpapers, and cover art by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu elevate A Wild Swan to exquisite object. Where your stereotypical fairy tale collection might boast lush colors, ornate bindings, and metallic accents, A Wild Swan is elegant. Restrained, but not spare, its quality emerges in sedulous attention to detail. White space explodes into knots of intricate line on carefully composed pages. A swan's silhouette stands out in relief on the embossed cover. Cunningham's canny, contemporary voice is made more timeless with decorations that hearken back to, but don't simply imitate, famed illustrators from Walter Crane to Harry Clarke.
I've loved Shimizu's work since a friend pointed me to her public page on Facebook a year ago. (Come for the behind-the-scenes illustration techniques, stay for the adorable Chihuahua pics.) A Wild Swan and Other Tales gives the Japanese-born artist the chance to shine in tandem with a talented major author secure in his powers.
– Lisa Barrow