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Spotlight on: Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter

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Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers

Angela Carter is the mistress of feminist irony. Her most famous and seminal collection The Bloody Chamber took beloved fairy tales and twisted them, showing us how wrong (and even silly) their accepted patriarchal bases were, and offering us a new spin. "The Company of Wolves" was even made into Neil Jordan's film of the same name, starring Angela Lansbury and Stephen Rea.

Saints and Strangers delves into other texts, mostly American history, and again offers another viewpoint on familiar tales. The opener, "The Fall River Axe Murders," is the most effective and the one that most rewards rereading. Carter takes an infamous figure known to most through a simple children's rhyme ("Lizzie Borden took an axe...") and gives her story an Ann Rule spin. This Lizzie doesn't kill her parents...yet. We are given access, instead, to the days preceding the crime, including possible motivating factors like debilitating heat, Victorian-era attitudes, and menstruation. All this making someone who was originally an object of scorn into a sympathetic, and even understandable, character.

"Our Lady of the Massacre" concerns the story of a Lancashire woman who, instead of starving, inadvertently is introduced to the ways of prostitution and pickpocketing. She goes to the New World as an indentured servant but, when the overseer tries to rape her and she mutilates him in self-defense, she runs away and is found by the Indians, whose ranks she joins. This is much more interesting as a story in itself; a portrait of a piece of American history usually left hidden. The main character is entirely believable and I was sorry to see her story end so quickly.

"Peter and the Wolf" is nothing like the folk tale that was turned into the popular children's musical and Disney film. But that is just another instance where Carter turns our expectation on its head. Then the wolf turns out to be something unexpected as well, and the story is just one surprise after another.

There aren't many pieces in Saints and Strangers and the book itself is just about 125 pages, but each piece stands on its own and is literary enough for deep reading. If you truly appreciate each story's merits, this book will not be a quick read. Along the way, we come across moments in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire (told, of course, from the perspective of the women in their lives), and the characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- before the curtain rises on the events with which we are familiar. Each time, we are introduced to people we thought we knew, but whom Carter's imagination (and, one would imagine, research) takes in entirely unexpected directions.

Saints and Strangers may not be the best starting point for the work of Angela Carter, but it is no slouch, either. However, if you already know what you're getting into and want to dive in head first, get Burning Your Boats, which contains the entirety of her short fiction for just a little more money. No matter which book you get, women will be emboldened -- and men will be frightened -- by Carter's take on all the things we as a culture have always taken for granted.

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