Friday, April 26, 2019

Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold

Everyone knows that the prince must find and slay the dragon and rescue the damsel.  Everyone knows that then the prince will become the king and the damsel his queen.  She will have a child and the cycle will repeat.  This is the way things are and how they will always be.  It works out well for the prince, but what of the dragon?  What of the damsel?  Does anyone ever ask the damsel what she wants?  Does anyone even care?

The eponymous damsel of this story has no memory of how she came to be rescued, simply that she was.  Even her name (Ama) is supplied by the prince (she cannot recall one of her own).  And when she asks for help in reconstructing her past, no one seems interested in helping her. The queen mother tells her to forget the path backwards and think only of the future (being a wife and a mother).  That the only happiness lies in thinking forward.

In fact, the question makes the prince angry.  Her role is the marry him and have a son.  Nothing else matters.  When she has the audacity to create a great work of art at the end of the story, he challenges her:

"You see, Ama, it is for men to create.  It is for men to decide.  It is for men to speak.  It is your place to listen, and follow, and gestate.  And those are no small things!  For without women to listen, how would the men's words be heard?  Without your fertile womb, how could my son hope to grow?  You are important, Ama.  Desperately important.  But do not overreach."

The novel is deeply disturbing: a very dark fairy tale that asks probing questions about the dragon quest archetype.  But this is much more than some fractured fairy tale. Arnold is exploring the intersect of consent and agency, often in very surprising ways.  As we settle down to domesticity, what are the costs to our selves?  One subplot involves Ama's attempt to domesticate a baby lynx.  Needless to say, it ends badly, but not before illustrating the damage being done to Ama herself.

The themes are quite mature. The language is harsh and frank.  The prince routinely brutalizes his damsel physically and emotionally.  In sum, this is not a children's book.  But while danger is ever present in this world, it is not actually explicit and it serves a purpose:  driving home the extreme stakes of Ama's search for self.

This is not a book for everyone but to me it seemed extraordinary.  Beautifully written, it's easily the most powerful and memorable book I've read this year so far.  Its a novel that will get you thinking not just about fairy tale stories, but about much broader issues of consent and acquiescence.

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