We are ourselves, and we are also stories people tell.
Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan is a reimagining of the classic Irish fairy tale The Children of Lir. When Aífe’s imposed marriage to her dead sister’s widower, King Lir, dissolves into a state of unhappiness, Aífe enacts a cruel revenge by condemning her stepchildren (who are also her nieces and nephews) to a life of 900 years as swans. Sullivan’s writing style is so unique – dark, powerful, visceral, earthy – and this story is all these things and more, as Sullivan now gives unprecedented voice to Aífe herself, revealing the woman behind this unfathomable act; the grief, the rage, the desperation, the trauma, the jealousy, the resentment, the confusion as to her own feelings around motherhood, and the desire to connect with a dark power as ancient as time itself. This story is a reimagining, a reclaiming, and a revealing, rather than simply a retelling.
At the heart of this story lies stories themselves, and the power of words; the truths that can be lost or skewed as stories are told and retold; how the reshaping of stories can be the re-forming of people; and how our identity is wrapped up in how others see us, or don’t see us.
Stories can be weapons, persuading people of things about themselves, about each other.
The book alternates the original fairytale with Sullivan’s reimagining, and the rich and raw narration, delving deep into Aífe’s psyche, newly reveals a girl and then young woman torn apart at the seams; torn from her family at a young age in an agreement made by men, separated from her sister in an agreement made by men, handed over in a traumatic marriage in an agreement made by men, then struggling with her own sense of self, her feelings about her new position, about impending motherhood, and about her capabilities as a stepmother; torn between love and hate, guilt and spite. In a world where the fate of women is consistently decided by men, and in a story where the women are classified according to their relationship to King Lir, Aífe reclaims her voice, her presence and her very existence in the only way she feels she can. She is driven by a jealousy born from the lack of people seeing her; feeling unwanted, unseen, and unable to connect to the people around her, while her stepchildren are the shining lights in Lir, and everyone else’s, eyes.
As is often the case in Sullivan’s writing, there is a lot of female strength and resilience in this story: the beautiful, physical and emotional bond between Aífe and her two sisters as young girls; how Aífe delights in their virtues as quickly as she proclaims her own failings and weaknesses; her affection and admiration for the two female attendants, Dechtaire and Smól, who accompany them on their voyage as young children, creating a firm link with their childhood home, and leave them only to pick up arms and set forth to fight the invaders; later, we see Aífe’s stepchild Fionnuala’s fierce love of, and care for, her brothers.
As the story progresses, and Aífe herself is condemned to a new life by another’s magic, we see her shifting feelings towards her stepchildren, and a new sense of self-knowledge. Things she could not see and feel in her previous life, she now becomes more open to. This story harks back to the origin of fairy tales and is full of darkness, of cruelty, of pain and ancient magic; magic that comes from the bowels of the earth, channeled by listening to, and connecting with, the land. Yet Sullivan’s reimagining brings a fully modern twist to the fairy tale by providing rich new psychological insight and evolution, from the perspective of the ‘villain’ no less, and affording this same villain redeeming moments of tenderness, vulnerability and growth. As in Sullivan’s previous work, there is an extremely visceral quality to the writing, and a recurring preoccupation with skin – how we feel, and fit, in it – with the powerful and discomforting metaphor of troubles eating away at pieces of people. There is also a rich connection to old Ireland in the nod to the Ogham alphabet, referenced in the calligrams (poems laid out in thematically related shapes) between chapters, and to the Ireland of fairy tales and folklore, complemented by Karen Vaughan’s beautiful illustrations.
This is a powerful and enthralling read, and only serves to confirm that Sullivan is a wholly unique writer. I have previously reviewed Sullivan’s first short story collection, one of my favourite short story collections to date, and cannot recommend this author enough.
Book 7 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
Savage Her Reply was published by Little Island Books in 2020.
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer and teacher from Galway. She has written seven acclaimed books for young adults, including Savage Her Reply (Little Island 2020), Perfectly Preventable Deaths (Hot Key Books 2019), and Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island 2017). She was the recipient of the CBI Book of the Year Award in 2018 and the An Post Irish Book Award for YA in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in Banshee and The Dublin Review.