Some books transform you forever, haunting your memory long after the last word is read and the covers are closed. Deerskin is one of those books.
Robin McKinley’s novel is extraordinary in both the unflinching honesty and depth of compassion with which it handles brutal subject matter. When a narcissistic queen on her deathbed makes her husband vow that he will not marry another woman who does not equal her in beauty, she sets a travesty in motion as her previously ignored teenage daughter grows to womanhood.
Princess Lissar, raised on a ravenous diet of fairytales about the perfect love of her perfectly beautiful parents, told by a starry-eyed nursemaid, comes to be terrified of the way those idolized parents look at her. When Lissar, who is the mirror image of her dead mother, refuses to marry her insane father, she is raped by him with the tacit consent of his entire court.They want the coldly glittering dead Queen, who haunts them in a giant painting hung above the throne room, to return in the body of her own child. Not one of the counselors speaks against the King when he refuses to consider marrying anyone else. Instead they blame Lissar. And no one but her faithful dog, Ash, attempts to protect her.
Lissar’s story could end here with a splintered protagonist, eyed from a distance with pity or a lack of understanding by some other viewpoint character and a lesser novelist. Her story could stay drowned in insanity and rage and unassuagable grief or end with a helpless character who is avenged by someone else, teaching nothing except the worn-out saw that survivors are powerless. Instead, Deerskin is told with surpassing empathy, courage and hope. It’s a poignant exploration of the thorny brambles of isolation and abandonment, imbued with triumph, and, ultimately, deeply healing.
An adaptation of an oft-bowdlerized story, Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin, Deerskin confronts the horror of a hideous situation — a man who lusts after his own child — glossed over by the original tale. It also moves on a grander, more mythic scale than most fairytale retellings. McKinley deftly addresses the modern meaning of myth and fairytale — lies sugar coated against frightening truths and sparkling with the complicity of narrative pixie-dust — then catapults her novel into the profound realm of myth as transformative stories with a relevance deeper than literal truths.
While Lissar’s flight into exile into a wilderness that is both literal and spiritual is a very personal journey of survival, it also becomes universal. For Lissar is not just a ravaged daughter, an abandoned princess driven to the brink of madness by her rape, but an incarnation of the Lady of the Moon, a silver-haired huntress whose story echoes her own and has been retold — and revered — in the surrounding countries for centuries, providing a model of courage and comfort to their people.
The Moonwoman is no easy-fixer of a fairy godmother, but a true Goddess who offers Lissar the tools to achieve her own salvation. She may bless Lissar and Ash with physical healing, the safety of a new identity, and supernatural instincts, but they still have to journey through years of trauma and the grinding physical ordinariness of life before they can become heroes. They do so, not in some isolated act of bravado, but by facing their terror of bonding with others, realizing that they have a responsibility both to face the past and prevent it from repeating.
Deerskin‘s story of overcoming the shattering affects of sexual assault happens every day, around the world, to far too many human beings. Rarely is it told with such beauty, empathy and power.
[Shirl Sazynski is a writer and illustrator of the mythic and frequent contributor to Eternal Haunted Summer. A past guest at the Mythopoeic society annual conference and a Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror award winner, her work has appeared in Jabberwocky, Mirror Dance, Cliterature, Mythic Delirium and a launched computer game, with non-fiction in the Santa Fe Reporter, Animerica, Sequential Tart and other magazines and newspapers. She is currently writing a novel with mythic and environmentalist elements set in the desert southwest. More work can be found at shirlsazynski.com.]