A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-
GRIMM’S LAST FAIRYTALE
Abacus pb, 249pp, £6.99
Haydn Middleton’s latest novel is set in September 1863, when an ailing Jacob Grimm travels through rural west Germany, revisiting the places that were once important in his life and reflecting on the betrayal of his dream of a united Germany by the reality of Prussia’s Iron Chancellor. Accompanying Grimm are his devoted niece Auguste, intent on learning more of her family’s history, and the enigmatic manservant Kummel, who has secrets of his own. This narrative strand is fleshed out with flashbacks to Grimm’s past life, his childhood, the collaboration with Wilhelm that assured his fame, romantic entanglements etc. And intercut with the main body of the text is an alternative and far more horrific telling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, one derived from Perrault.
Beautifully written, with a keen sense of time and place, finely drawn characters and an eye for the telling detail, this is a compelling historical novel, one that explores the interface between fact and fiction, life and story. One major theme is the belief a people’s true nature can be seen in the stories that it tells itself. For Grimm the tragedy is to see his work and spiritual belief in the Volk twisted to mundane political ends, foreshadowing the monstrous way in which both were used by the Nazis. And yet for all Middleton’s artistry he seems to be circling this theme rather than cutting straight to its heart. The book is vaguely dissatisfying, not so much because of what Middleton gives us but from a feeling that there should be something more. The obvious comparison is Geoff Ryman’s Was, which dealt with similar material, but more directly and with greater authority. Grimm’s Last Fairytale is a fascinating story, and worth any reader’s time, but it’s a book whose ambition perhaps exceeds its reach.