Boy, Snow, Bird
Boy Novak is the beautiful daughter of the rat catcher who cleans up his neighbors’ vermin issues in a corner of Manhattan. Papa’s cruelty is too much to bear, and Boy escapes to a town in New England. There, she meets Arturo Whitman, a local businessman and widower whose lovely daughter, Snow, is in need of a new mother. But when Boy gives birth to Bird, whose appearance gives away a secret in the Whitman family, Boy turns into the wicked stepmother she swore she’d never become. Oyeyemi retells the story of Snow White as a powerful fable about American cultural politics and the ways in which Americans are enslaved to what they see in their mirrors.
In Little Women, Mr. March is an catalytic figure. While he doesn’t play much part in the quotidian life of the March sisters and Marmee, events involving Mr. March create change in the lives of those back home. Geraldine Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel in which she imagines March’s life with the Union Army. In Alcott’s novel, the arrival of Father’s letters was met with joy tempered by fear that it would reveal bad news. In her retelling, Brooks fills in all the details of the things that Mr. March dared not say to his loved ones.
The Silence of the Girls
The first line of Homer’s Iliad declares that the “wrath of Achilles” is what will drive forward the story he is about to tell. But in Barker’s retelling, readers see that anger from the perspective of the Trojan women who have been held captive and enslaved by the warriors besieging Troy. One of these women, Briseis, has been taken into the tent of Achilles. Her view of these men’s actions and her memories of life in Troy before the war provides a view of war seldom spoken of by those who would glorify it.
The first time I read Antigone by Sophocles, I recognized a story that would be important to my own life: a play about a woman who dared to stand up against the unjust laws of her king. In Shamsie’s brilliant, fiery retelling set in modern-day Great Britain, readers meet Isma and Aneeka, two British sisters of Pakistani descent. When Eamonn, the son of a prominent British politician, enters their lives, he turns it topsy-turvy. His father is a vocal critic of the Muslims living in Britain despite the fact that he, too, shares their origins. When word reaches Isma and Aneeka that their brother Parvaiz is in trouble, actions are set in motion that will change everything.
Mary Reilly is one of many Irish young women who have traveled to 19th-century London in search of work. Mary’s past has left her scarred and hesitant about getting close to other people, but the man she works for, Dr. Henry Jekyll, is a kind man who soon wins Mary’s trust. At night, Mary notices that Dr. Jekyll disappears for long periods of time. And when she meets a man who works for him, Mr. Edward Hyde, she takes an immediate disliking to the man and tries to find a way to warn her employer about her suspicions. Valerie Martin’s delicious retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will keep readers enraptured as they feel the chill of evil that Mary feels each time she’s alone with the strange Mr. Hyde.
A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley was another winner of the Pulitzer Prize for this, her brilliant retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Larry Cook owns a farm that encompasses 1,000 acres. As he grows older, he tells his three daughters—Ginny, Rose, and Caroline—that he intends to divide the land among the three of them. But Caroline, the youngest, objects. As in King Lear, this objection by his youngest daughter enrages Cook, and he cuts her out of the will in response. But as the older sisters and Caroline react to their father’s actions, long-buried issues from the past break through the surface. The secrets left to be harvested are a poisonous crop.
Shylock Is My Name
The Merchant of Venice is a troubling play for its depiction of Shylock, the titular merchant. He is a Jewish merchant, and his demand for a literal pound of flesh from a man who owes him money has long raised issues of antisemitism. In Jacobson’s modern telling, Shylock becomes the art dealer Simon Strulovitch. Strulovitch is deeply concerned by the antisemitism he perceives in British society (an issue currently dividing the Labour Party). When his daughter Beatrice falls in love with a footballer who once gave a Nazi salute on the pitch, the resulting conflict leads to a series of unexpected consequences.
Bray presents a comic retelling of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which a teenaged boy sets out on an epic road trip through America in search of a magic cure. Cameron is your average 16-year-old slacker who just hopes to finish high school without having to work too hard. But the day he finds out he has a fatal illness harshes any buzz he had going. When Dulcie, who might be an angel or a fairy except she’s totally punk, shows up and tells him that a cure exists if he’s willing to look for it, Cam sets off on his journey. His companions on the trip are twisted characters who make sure that Cam’s mission will become legendary.
Felix has a cushy job as the artistic director of a prestigious theatre company. But both his wife and his beloved daughter, Miranda, die, and Felix begins a tailspin that results in being fired from his job. Twelve years later, with the ghost of Miranda in residence at his house, he works at a prison, where he stages works of Shakespeare each year. When his former boss becomes the Minister of Culture and plans a visit to the prison, Felix opts to stage The Tempest, Shakespeare’s play about a man who’s been exiled to an island by an evil member of his family. In Atwood’s retelling, questions emerge about the roles of prisons and who society invests with the power to imprison others.
Karen Lord retells stories that originate in the oral tradition of fairy stories, myths, and spiritual beings who populate the traditional stories told in the Caribbean region. In Unraveling, Lord weaves these elements into the crime investigation carried out by forensic therapist Dr. Miranda Ecouvo. Dr. Ecouvo thinks she’s solved the serial killings that have terrified her city, but a near-death experience of her own brings her into the presence of the brothers Chance and the Trickster. They inform her that her case is not yet closed and take her into the spaces inhabited by the mythical creatures who interfere in human lives.
Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s greatest writers, and in Killing Commendatore, he offers a retelling of the American classic The Great Gatsby. When a Japanese portrait painter struggles to complete an impossible commission, his life is further complicated when his wife leaves him. He seeks solace in the home of Tomohiko Amada, the famous Japanese artist. There, he stumbles into another seemingly impossible situation when he becomes trapped in a circle of mysterious circumstance. Before he can find his way out, he must journey across time to Nazi Vienna, where he meets a host of other characters who make demands of him. This epic story will keep readers guessing what’s next.
The Bloody Chamber
Angela Carter died of cancer at the height of a writing career that saw her lauded as one of Britain’s greatest post-war writers. The Bloody Chamber is Carter’s stunning collection of retold fairy tales that include “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In her stories, however, the erotic elements and darknesses emerge. Carter disputed the idea that these were new versions of old tales and argued that she had found the untold energies that underlay the stories to create brand new tales. When the book was originally published in 1979, it shocked people with its sexuality and bloodiness. Reading it today will make obvious the impact that Carter had on future writers who have mined fairy tales to create a whole new genre of literature.
The Gap of Time
In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, he explored the lengths to which jealousy would drive a husband. In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson looks at the destructive power that jealousy has and creates a story that moves from modern-day London to a city that resembles New Orleans. Leo is a hedge fund manager who has bullied his way to becoming a rich man. He’s married to the marvelous MiMi, a French singer enjoying the last stages of her pregnancy with their first child. But Leo becomes convinced that MiMi has been carrying on an affair with Xeno, who designs video games. When MiMi gives birth to Perdita, Leo decides to get rid of the daughter he’s convinced is not his own child. Winterson has given readers a rich story that explores the pressures of the world of high finance and the consequences of Leo’s decision to give his daughter away.
Daphne du Maurier continues to scare many a reader with her story of a young bride who’s tormented by the ghost of her husband’s tragic first wife. In The Winters, Gabriele has created a further complication of Rebecca with her suspenseful novel. Set in a luxury mansion on Long Island, The Winters focuses on Max Winter, the grieving widower, and his teenaged daughter, Dani, who hates the young woman her father intends to marry. Max Winter’s political ambitions dictate that he must present the image of a happy family to the public if he is to succeed, and Max isn’t going to allow either his daughter or his fiancée to get in the way of what he wants. As events move forward, his fiancée discovers that the first Mrs. Winter’s presence is everywhere in the house, and nothing matches the appearances that the Winters present to the world.
When an author returns to the work of a past writer and retells the story, what is the benefit to the readers who pick up the new work? In a recent interview with The Guardian, Pat Barker explains that in her retelling of Homer’s Iliad, she’s given voices to the women mentioned in the story but never given a chance to speak the truths they observe.
For Angela Carter, the term “retelling” was a misnomer. She insisted that she found the parts of the story the original author missed, and the stories she created were new products of her imagination that should be considered brand new stories.
As a reader, I find myself in agreement with both of these authors. I love to read stories based on earlier works precisely because I don’t expect to hear the same story set in a new time period. A story that offers a whole new way of understanding of an older plot can offer new meaning.
Here are 14 recent books that are new interpretations of previous work. Whether drawn from myth and fairy tales or some of the classics of literature, each of these books provide extra layers and ways of understanding the world. Whether or not a reader is familiar with the origin story, each of these books is a world unto itself. If it also encourages us to pick up the previous work, that feels like a happy bonus to diving into these books.
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Featured illustration by Nathan Gelgud