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Heroes and VillainsHeroes and Villains by Angela Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am now pretty certain that no one ever really gets used to Angela Carter’s brand of vitriolic love or her genre-defying characters. I mean, when I try to figure out ‘Heroes and Villains’, I really struggle to put a label on what I have just read. Instead I come up with crazy statements like: it’s a futuristic fairytale with elements of creation mythology that registers roughly on the ultraviolet section of the story-telling rainbow. Yeah. It’s like THAT.

The main ingredients of a typical Carter novel are a fistful of folktale blueprints, which are then stripped from all the pretty ‘Perrault‘ restraints and marched at gunpoint into the roiling, acerbic crucible of the author’s mind. And from this magician’s melting pot which consists of a curious alchemy of brains, barbarism and wily femininity come out twisted versions of the tales themselves; genetically spliced monsters that would and could turn upon themselves at the slightest provocation. Actually, imagine the cannibalistic fairies that feature in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth‘ and you’re more than halfway there to figuring out just how brutal Carter can be in her own re-telling of events.

Take our main character for example, one bony slip of a girl called Marianne, who quite literally grows up in an ivory tower surrounded by luxuries. The tower and her social status as a professor’s daughter places her as the ‘princess’ of the story. A quick glance outside those castle walls and we instantly see how privileged she really is; as only two other caste systems remain in this bleak post-apocalyptic world. The dreaded barbarians are the ‘noble savages’ made up of wandering gypsies, thieves and vagabonds. Then there are the Out-People; a genetically corrupt version of humanity that have devolved into monsters. From these Carter makes up the misunderstood ‘other’ who are not as intellectually inferior as they seem and the half-man, half-monster types that would rank among the minotaurs and Centaurs of ancient mythology. The sad irony of this is that even though the latter group emulate the glory of demigods, the reality is quite the opposite as Carter marks their existence as unnatural and the undoing of man.

Marianne therefore surprises us when she tires from her closeted upbringing and decides to defect into the wilderness with a dangerous barbarian who is held captive in the fortress. Even worse is the fact that she runs away with the very boy who murdered her own brother. So begins a very strange tale of love (if love it can be called) between a savage and a professor’s daughter as they form an odd alliance that can only be described as a type of Stockholm Syndrome.

Within the span of the story, Marianne shows her true colours, as her life with the savage tribe exposes her to vulgarity and sexual assault. Male/ female relationships are brought down to their bare primal essentials and we realise how Marianne is made of much, much sterner stuff. As the story progresses we see how Marianne by instinct has finally found the place where she is most happy; beside the beautiful but violent raven-haired Jewel.

As a reader I enjoyed the progression of their relationship, this unlikely romance that would go sour in some places and then pick up again when you least expected it. There story is underpinned by the Adam and Eve mythos, and this also handsomely features in the form of a grotesque tattoo on Jewels torso of the scene where Eve offers Adam the forbidden fruit. In fact, Jewel is somewhat of a synthetic messiah; a puppet controlled by the ominous ‘Doctor’; a madman who is trying to fabricate his own religion using members of the savage tribe. Jewel with his imposing physique and handsome looks doubles as Adam, Jesus and other religious characters.

So, dystopian fiction or post-apocalyptic nightmare; barbaric romance or feminist literature, you read and decide.

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