Reviews: Metaphrog casts an enchantment with The Red Shoes
There’s something about autumn that makes it ideal for fairy tales, perhaps the long, golden twilight evenings, the perfect conditions for the Fair Folk to emerge, brings it on, or the lengthening dark nights that feeds a desire for such tales. And I’ve been waiting rather eagerly to read this collection, ever since Metaphrog announced several months ago that they were working on it for Papercutz (see here). Regular readers will already know of my abiding love for the Glasgow-based duo’s Louis books, and when I heard of this project, adapting tales by the immortal Hans Christian Andersen (the book includes The Red Shoes and the Little Match Girl by Andersen, as well as an original fairy tale of their own devising, the Glass Case), I thought they would be ideal for the subject, as they’ve shown numerous times their skill for blending whimsical, the fantastical, the delightful and the disturbing, all elements important to a good fairy story.
The book is launching at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival this month, but it was glimpsed earlier in the summer, while Metaphrog were authors in residence for the Edinburgh International Book Festival (actually I believe they still are in that role as it extends beyond festival time to various outreach programmes and visits, something I know they enjoy doing), and Papercutz very nicely created a limited series just for the festival in August – each and every one of which sold out. When a book gets swooped on so much at the world’s biggest lit festival that it clears the shelves, well, I reckon that’s a pretty good recommendation, isn’t it? The physical book itself is a thing of beauty, a quarter-bound hardback, fabric spine, gold lettering, luscious end-papers on the insides – yes, I know, and I don’t judge books by their covers, but let’s be honest, it’s also pleasing to both eye and fingers (books – non-digital ones at any rate – are a tactile as well as cognitive and emotional experience), to enjoy something which has been put together carefully with thought and love, not just in the execution of the story but in the actual object itself.
Understandably The Red Shoes tale takes the lion’s share of the book, introducing us to Karen, a young girl living in poverty, so much so that she must go barefoot in the summer, with hard wooden clogs for winter, and yet this poor girl dreams of dancing, and loves to pirouette on those bare feet, problems momentarily forgotten as she dances. When she loses her mother a kindly neighbour stitches makeshift shoes (red, a precursor, perhaps of what will come later) for her to wear to the funeral. Her great aunt Anna takes in the now orphaned child. Her great aunt is clearly better off than Karen and her mother were, and taking pity on her unfortunate niece’s bedraggled state she takes her shopping for decent clothes and proper shoes. And while walking around town she glimpses a ballerina running into the theatre, “she was so beautiful, her skin was pale as marble, her dancing shoes red as rubies.”
She’s a dream image for young Karen, what she so wishes she could be. And that’s when they see the red shoes in a nearby shop, the cobbler, half obsequious, half disturbingly creepy (he reminds me slightly of the shoemaker in the Powell & Pressburger film of The Red Shoes, surely one of the glories of classic British cinema, and I wonder if perhaps this was a wee artistic nod to that classic film). But these are no ordinary shoes, and Karen is about to learn a very harsh lesson in being wary of what one wishes for, because wishes and dreams have power and there are things which feed upon that energy… It’s beautifully depicted, Karen is part victim here but also partly complicit, it’s not clear cut, her desires fuel some of what happens, while some of it is more in the nature of a cruel curse, and that moral ambiguity makes it all the more compelling.
And the art is wonderful, with numerous memorable scenes, from the aforementioned slightly menacing and creepy shoemaker holding out the red shoes to the young lass, to a three-page sequence which increases the tempo, going from four panels to two as Karen puts on the shoes for a second time, knowing that they will make her dance but unable to resist, then to a single splash page, Karen dancing deliriously in the night-time street under a huge full moon, the perspective of the old buildings on the side and the cobbled street all combining to make a moment which is achingly beautiful, and yet this beauty also portends darkness. The Red Shoes has been a classic cautionary tale of desires and responsibilities for generations, and here it is interpreted wonderfully, a mixture of pathos and delight, magical wonder and dark undercurrents (this does not shy away from showing the consequences either), just as a good fairy tale should be told, touching on responsibility, dreams and mortality.
The other two tales here are much shorter, another inspired by Andersen, The Little Match Girl, and The Glass Case, an original by Metaphrog. I actually got to see these two in a slightly different form a couple of years ago when they published a lovely wee one-off gift book, just a tiny wee thing, very limited run, which was just do damned pretty that Richard and I both ended up penning a review each. Both fall into that strange category of the “beautifully sad”. The Glass Case, rather pleasingly for me, is set mostly in The Museum of Childhood, which is only moments walk from where I work in Edinburgh. Young Sam encounters Molly, an old doll in a glass case in the museum on a school trip – each student is tasked with drawing one of the toys, he picks Molly, getting abuse from the other boys for choosing “a girl’s dolly”, but he doesn’t care, he’s drawn to the old toy.
When we see his homelife it’s not hard to see why the poor boy dreams of something better, both he and his mother assaulted by a violent, abusive father. The museum becomes a refuge for Sam, and Molly becomes more than a mere historical toy… But it’s a very short story, and I won’t spoil it by explaining any more of it here. Suffice to say it’s delicately handled, and includes some moments of wonder and beauty to offset the darkness (a view from the roof across the Old Town of Edinburgh and the great extinct volcano which rears up in the middle of the city is magical). It somehow manages to be both terribly sad and yet also uplifting and offering hope. It reminds me in some ways of the ending of Besson’s beautiful The Big Blue, which some find sad while others see a sort of happiness in it, and I think similarly how you interpret this tale will depend very much on the individual reader.
The Little Match Girl closes the collection, another tale inspired by Andersen, and again filled that a beautiful sadness. A very young girl, barefoot like Karen in the Red Shoes, selling matchsticks in a snowy city street, as busy shoppers walk past her, oblivious to the child’s plight. It’s the last day of the year and so bitterly cold as she stands there in the street, in the snow, not a single match sold, knowing her father will be angry that she hasn’t sold any all day. The contrast between the ragamuffin (and yet so good natured) child freezing in the street and the brightly lit shops offering all sorts of delights and pleasures is painful, a reminder to those of us in the developed world that, without even thinking about we often spend more just on consumer goods than the amount spent to feed or clothe a child in some other parts of the world, of the vast inequalities all around us.
The girl looks like she could have stepped from Dickens novel of Victorian poverty while the street itself looks modern, a contrast I imagine is a deliberate choice, reminding us that even here in developed, supposedly well-off societies there are too many who do not share in that lifestyle, especially in the years since the global crash, and how horribly easy it is to simply not see these problems that are right before us, to walk past. She’s shivering and scared and hungry, she doesn’t dream of being a dancer like Karen or for great riches, her humble dreams are simply of a warm fire, food, family – and love. Delivering these cold, snowy street scenes in a sepia colour tone gives an impression of a story from Ye Olde Dark Days, but the modern street is whispering to us that this is not a problem consigned to history, that this sort of suffering is still going on around us today, far, far too often. And yet for all the sadness in the Little Match Girl there’s also that warm quality, that redeeming feature which is perhaps the only thing that can save any of us – love.
It’s a beautiful set of tales for younger readers, gorgeous to look at and well crafted, like the original Andersen tales, to not only tell a story but to impart ideas to young minds, to be grateful for what they have, to be aware of the suffering of others and not to turn a blind eye, that bad things can happen but so too can the wonderful. And all packaged in this wonderful small hardback which is a delight to behold. A perfect Christmas gift for a young reader, perhaps? Or better still treat yourself to it and read it with you children or nephews and nieces, because books like this need to be shared.