Singing My Sister Down
Margo Lanagan’s Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories brings together selected stories from four previous collections with three new ones. They are almost all set in the archetypal world of mediaeval fantasy, popular in YA literature, a category in which Lanagan is a multi-award-winning writer. However, these dark meditations on gender, patriarchal violence, ritual and death also afford a rich and unsettling experience for adults.
Like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, many of Lanagan’s stories transform existing fairytales and myths. The protagonist of “Not All Ogre” is based on the prince from “Sleeping Beauty”, whose mother is an ogre, as the little-told second part of the original tale makes clear. In Lanagan’s revisionary story, the man-ogre Torro is a refugee of the “north-western wars”, who travels with two other refugees and who hears about the myth of a princess living in the woods. While Torro’s companions prefer to rape women – to “enact on their bodies – at first willing, then passing through noise and struggle to helpless silence – what had been done to [their] country” – Torro himself cannot resist children, including the young and sleeping princess.
“Ferryman” is a more playful but similarly gruesome revision. It adapts the Greek myth of the ferryman Charon, who transports the dead across rivers that divide the world of the living from Hades. Lanagan’s story starts with a girl named Sharon descending a deep staircase to take her ferryman father, Charence, his lunch in the underworld. She crosses “the velvety hell-moss badged here and there with flat red liverworts” and observes the dead “lined up in their groups looking dumbly about”, before serving him lunch, and ultimately taking over his work.
The stories are not always revisionary, but they consistently thematise death. In the standout story, “Singing My Sister Down”, a family gathers for the ritualistic punishment of Ik, a woman who axed her husband to death and who has been condemned to sink into a tar pit. While a chief and the husband’s relatives watch from the shore, Ik’s family make gangplanks to be alongside Ik, embracing her, wiping down her skin, and singing, to provide comfort but also to drown out “any last whimper, any stopped breath”.
Lanagan’s prose, like Carter’s, has a Gothic beauty and disturbing resonance. She conjures mythic worlds only to make us think more keenly about our own. KN
Allen & Unwin, 208pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Margo Lanagan, Singing My Sister Down". Subscribe here.