fb-pixelFairy tales and the cold truth of women’s live - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
book review

Fairy tales and the cold truth of women’s live


There are readers who devoured Jenny Diski’s writing for decades, whether her topic was Antarctica, her mother, the 1960s, riding a train across America, animals, mental illness, Madonna, Marx, or the fictional protagonists of the 10 novels that accompanied her dizzying nonfiction output. There are readers who came to Diski through the fierce, reflective essays she wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, works which appeared in the London Review of Books and in the widely-reviewed collection “In Gratitude,’’ published just a week before she died in April 2016.

Then there are too many readers who have never heard of Jenny Diski.


Diski’s wonderful story collection, “The Vanishing Princess,’’ holds riches for all. Longtime fans will celebrate the very fact of more Diski and thrill to familiar preoccupations in new settings and shapes. Those who know only the self-elegizing Diski will encounter the expansive parameters of her imagination and intellect. Those who read Diski for the first time are in for the delight of discovery.

“The Vanishing Princess’’ was published in England in 1995 but makes its first US appearance in this posthumous reissue. Aside from the absence of cellphones and the Internet, its stories could have been written today. Their unsatisfying realities — bad parents, despairing teenagers, divorce, death — and compensatory alternatives — a sexually actualizing affair, a perfect bathroom all to oneself, the terrifying comfort of the ocean — may not be universal, but are certainly of this moment. Even the high school students in “On the Existence of Mount Rushmore and Other Improbabilities” echo our own ignorant era: They “have no concept of chronology beyond one’s own birthday” and don’t know whether the earth is round or flat (see: the Globe’s recent story on flat earth believers, not to mention the Celtics’ very own Kyrie Irving).


The three fairy tales that anchor the book speak both to Diski’s timelessness and to her contemporary feminist perspicuity. It doesn’t get more traditional than the first sentence “There was once a princess who lived in a tower,” but “The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism” becomes a mashup of Rapunzel, Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,’’ feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin, and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which may sound daunting, but results in both entrancing story and powerful (if not necessarily original) literary and cultural critique.

Meanwhile, the monotonous tower experience of “The Old Princess” gives lie to fairy tale drama. In “[Expletive] and Gold,” however, Diski rewrites Rumpelstiltskin to show how a savvy princess can indeed come up with a “new angle on an old story,” vanquishing the men who try to control her, saving herself and the kingdom, and bringing about happy endings and lots of sex for all.

The book’s other stories begin in the cold reality of women’s daily lives: “He phoned at completely the wrong time, my lover”; “Hannah slid around the polished floor in the arms of her partner, trying to follow as smoothly as he led”; “It was Lillian’s habit to take a walk every lunchtime”; “The thought came to Ellen in the middle of the night.” What makes these stories quintessentially Diski is the way they balance between the sometimes mundane, sometimes grim, sometimes arresting detail of those lives and the spiraling thoughts of the characters who inhabit them. In so doing, they not infrequently stretch the boundaries of realism.


Some stories accomplish this through specific moments or events. In “The Leaper,” a writer battles impostor syndrome and the “worry centre” in her brain, passes a Tube entrance just after a suicide while on her way to the gym, and gets swept into a genre-bending modern Gothic by a seemingly chance conversation about death in a café after her workout. In “Housewife,” the titular Susan remains a happily married wife, mother, and student even as she gleefully seeks an increasingly fantastical literary and physical “innermost boundary of desire” with the English professor she meets at a conference.

Other stories use a single motif to detail the arc of a woman’s life. In “My Brother Stanley,” that motif is a dead brother’s portrait. “Bath Time” (which could be titled “A Bath of One’s Own’’) provides a biography in a progression of bathrooms. The mental hospital in “Strictempo” becomes the only viable respite for a troubled teenager.

In all her writing, Diski turned her sharply observant gaze on the stuff of the world — people, places, books, things, oncologist appointments — and then thought hard not only about that stuff, but about the thoughts generated by that stuff and the thoughts further generated by those thoughts. In “The Vanishing Princess,’’ her characters are to a degree her avatars, sometimes in their reenactments of scenes and themes detailed elsewhere in memoirs and essays, always in the trenchant thinking that makes their stories — and hers — memorable.



By Jenny Diski

Ecco, 188 pp., paperback, $19.99

Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’