Review: Tangleweed and Brine

Thirteen chapters. Thirteen stories. Thirteen women, but not as we knew them.

Tangleweed and Brine, written by Deirdre Sullivan and gorgeously illustrated by Karen Vaughan, delves deep inside much-loved fairytales to view the cold, dark underbelly of stories we have grown up hearing. This collection of feminist retellings will call into question everything you’ve ever believed about Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince and more.

We’ve all believed for so long in the brightness of fairytales. The simplicity. Girls and young women in awful situations that are improved vastly by the appearance of a prince, or a woodcutter. A saviour. A husband.

and they all lived happily ever after. 

What if there were no happy endings? What if Rapunzel’s mother carried her to fill a cavernous void left by her need for fulfillment? What if the owner of the gingerbread house longed for something more in life, and built a house so she could help fill the hearts of those who felt as she did? What if the kiss that would bring the frog prince back to his human form meant a death sentence to the kisser? What if sister Fair tried to keep Trembling hidden to protect her, and not out of jealousy?

What if? What if?

tangleweed and brine on flatlay

Tangleweed and Brine is a slow, melodic masterpiece that cuts through the core of popular folklore, revealing the bitter seeds of the stories we feed through the ears of babies and the desolate fates that meet the villains of these tales. Sullivan weaves the darkest imaginings of these tales into a beautiful tangle of haunting desolation. The women in these stories are trapped in realities that resonate outside, in the real world. Women weighed down by expectation, oppressive rules and stifling belief systems. Women bound by magic they are powerless to unwind.

Peppered throughout are 13 gorgeous drawings by Karen Vaughan that capture the essence of the book beautifully, particularly the illustrations for Doing Well and The Tender Weight which are every bit as haunting as the stories they accompany.

Each story in the collection hurts in its own way. I can hear Sullivan’s voice rippling across the pages and spinning the web that traps you until the final line hits like a hammer and the spell breaks, but just for a moment. Every sentence is lilting music juxtaposed with the starkness of the prose. Like soft butter soothing the cracks in the hands of the hard-working characters, though no amount of softness could mask the eeriness of these delicately-woven tales.

My personal favourites in this collection, though it was not easy to choose, are Sister Fair, Doing Well, The Tender Weight and The Little Gift. 

These four burrowed deep under my skin. Caught me further in the woven web, and devastated me with their realities. Read them. Read them all. You will understand soon.


See more from Deirdre Sullivan here, more from Karen Vaughan here, and grab a copy of Tangleweed and Brine from Little Island.

Have you read Needlework? I wrote about it here.


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