Briar Rose by Robert Coover, a Review

A Postmodern Fairy Tale with a Wicked Sense of Humor

“He is surprised to discover how easy it is. The branches part like thighs, the silky petals caress his cheeks. His drawn sword is stained, not with blood, but with dew and pollen. Yet another inflated legend. He has undertaken this great adventure, not for the supposed reward—what is another lonely bedridden princess?—but in order to provoke a confrontation with the awful powers of enchantment itself. To tame mystery. To make, at last, his name.”

So begins Coover’s poetic, wry, raunchy version of Sleeping Beauty. Don’t expect any happily ever after here. Not only is Briar Rose caught in the limbo of enchantment, so is everyone else (except perhaps the wicked fairy).

The prince endlessly hacks his way through briars (though at times he dreams he has arrived in triumph). He is trapped, eternally seeking, wondering by turns if he is the Chosen One he’s always assumed himself to be or just another of fortune’s fools.

Though Briar Rose sleeps, she often dreams that she is awake and being molested by a disturbingly long line of Princes (and more unsavory types). About mid-way through I thought was going hurl the book or hurl my lunch if she was violated again. Fortunately, the author apparently tired of that motif at about the same time, and for the rest of the book Briar Rose is  molested mainly by stories spun by the evil fairy, architect of her misery (or is it her education?) who lurks around the edges of the dream castle.

Is Briar Rose a victim? Or is she, as the evil fairy tells her, “a murderess… the bones of your victims, rattling in the brambles down below.” One after another, she imagines a succession of Princes come, only to be disappointed and frustrated by their response (or lack of response), just as she is disappointed and frustrated by the un-fairytaleish tales spun by the fairy.

“The fairy recognizes that many of her stories, even when by her lights comic, have to do with suffering, often intolerable and unassuaged suffering, probably because she truly is a wicked fairy, but also because she is at heart (or would be if she had one) a practical old thing who wants to prepare her charge for more than a quick kiss and a wedding party.”

Even as she sleeps a hundred years, devoid of any memory save that of the pain caused by the spindle lodged somewhere deep inside her, Briar Rose asks the eternal questions: who am I? what am I? But, alas, there are no definitive answers for Briar Rose or the reader, because this is not only fantasy, this is postmodern fantasy. “A door that is not a door…nothing at this castle is simply what it is, everything here has a double life.”

As readers, we are aware that the text is a story, a metaphor, a layer among layers. We are aware; the narrator is aware; only Briar Rose is not aware. She sleeps, she dreams, she waits, even as she forgets that she is sleeping, dreaming and waiting.

And this is the heart of the tale: a sort of coming of age story… but not exactly, for there is no character progression, no plot resolution. This is, instead, a portrait of the eternal, frustrated but hopeful youth in all of us: waiting, suffering a wound that festers as we drift through the unexpected ways our imagined fairy tales actually unfold, yet still bravely asking the right questions: Who am I? What am I? Am I the Chosen One?

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