Writer: Jessica Duchen
Publishing House: Unbound
Date of Publication: 29th November 2018
Ratings: 5 stars
‘’Now I talk but you don’t believe me.’’
My mother and I have a Christmas tradition that we try to follow religiously every year. Both being avid lovers of ballet, we have associated Christmas with this beautiful form of Art. Usually, it’s The Nutcracker or The Swan Lake, both haunting fairy tales that have accompanied generations. Therefore, I was a little scared to start reading Odette, a modern retelling of The Swan Lake. I am always apprehensive (even dismissive) with retellings because the standards are high and the fear that everything will end in a glorious mess is always present. I am happy to say that with Odette I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.
A terrible storm named Odile hits East Anglia, causing a beautiful swan to lose its way and land on a windowsill in an imaginary town, gorgeously named Cygnford. It is Christmas and Mitzi has to care for the unfortunate bird, only to discover that the beautiful creature is actually Odette, a Russian princess that has fallen victim to the evil Baron’s spell. I am sure you know the rest. The two young women have to fight their way through a society that struggles to find its steps amidst the Brexit chaos and the growing feeling supported by a minority that strangers must remain strangers.
(Catrin Welz-Stein: Odette (Swan Lake)
If you are familiar with this classic tale (which I am sure is the case), you will be able to recognize all the little details inserted throughout the course of the story. If you happen to know very little about The Swan Lake, fear not because this novel will definitely prompt you to read more on this fascinating, traditional tale. Jessica Duchen pays homage to the original source through references to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece when you least expect it and I found this to be a brilliant choice. She weaves Siberia and the Lake Baikal in the narration, bringing the magnificent Russian landscape to life in all its glory, mystery and decadence. The magic of the classical music with extensive references to Franz Liszt, one of my favourite composers.
In my opinion, the element that makes this retelling successful, relatable and memorable is the way the writer chose to bring contemporary themes into focus by emphasizing the importance of fairy tales. She refers to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream whose common themes include the isolation of the Stranger, the Other based on preconceived, unfounded notions and prejudice, and the fluidity of gender. She comments on racism connected to immigration in a rather divided society with heavily polarized opinions. Subtle yet powerful attention turns to Brexit and the insecurity that hunts a country’s steps when people are fascinated by a bunch of populists (something we can all relate to regardless of our country of origin…) allowing them to convince us through lies and evil fairy tales. In this aspect, fairy tales are essential ti every culture, to the development of the young ones and the current fascination with them is a combination of escapism and searching for meaning and hope in a rather bleak, disheartening environment.
In literary terms, the writing is extremely engaging, confident and poetic. The dialogue is satisfying, with Odette’s parts being skillfully complex, but where Duchen really excels is in descriptions. Both Odette’s memories of her beautiful, mystical homeland and the haunting images of nightly Cygnford during a particularly harsh winter create a perfectly crafted atmosphere. Mitzi is a very sympathetic, bookish, level-headed and interesting character. It is easy to care for her fight to do what is right and overcome a serious disappointment. Odette is less complex, being a fairytale character after all, but you will love her innocence and will to see the good in everyone, even though it makes her look naive and vulnerable. The male characters are nothing to write home about but they are crucial to the story and as such they do their work well.
Were certain parts of the story predictable? Well, yes, obviously. We’re talking about a classic tale and a ballet that is (supposedly) familiar to most of us. It is natural to expect and predict but it shouldn’t matter when the writing has the power to make you care and eagerly anticipate what’s coming next. At least, this is what I felt while I was reading Odette. So, there you have it. In my opinion, this is one of the finest retellings I’ve recently read and a very promising start for the new reading year.
P.S. Princes and romance are old-fashioned and overrated.
P.P.S Friendship rules the world.
Many thanks to Unbound, the PigeonholeHQ, and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.