Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Reading Ireland 2021

During March every year Cathy at 746 Books runs a Reading Ireland Month, inviting other readers to participate, so it’s a good time to check what’s sitting on the shelf, to read in the company of others on something of a common theme.

I’m already participating in her year long Brian Moore at 100 ReadAlong and when Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s nonfiction book A Ghost in the Throat became my Outstanding Read of 2021, I began to seek out more titles by Irish Women Writers.

So I can also recommend my recent reads by Sara Baume, her beautiful work of creative nonfiction Handiwork that tracks the course of a year as she writes and sculpts small birds and vainly attempts to lure a few passing migratory species into her small garden. So entranced by her words, I ventured into her fiction and loved Spill Wither Falter Simmer and still have one more, A Line Made By Walking to read.

This week the focus was on short stories, so I chose to read Tangleweed and Brine and next week nonfiction, so I have two titles lined up Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I am currently reading and Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh a story of a wild Ireland, a mix of memoir, nature writing and social history, which looks very promising.

Disruptive Feminist Retellings of Classic Fairy Tales

I picked up Deirdre Sullivan’s two books for a change of genre and due to the intrigue of what her work promised. In 2020 I read Savage Her Reply a retelling of the Children of Lir, a fairy tale I wasn’t familiar with, but thoroughly enjoyed, not just the storytelling but the use of calligrams, poems and the language of Ogham, morsels on the side but subjects that a reader can get quite carried away with, inspiring one’s own creativity, as I found out, collecting small branches, twigs and leaves to adorn the word poems.

Tangleweed and Brine

Tangleweed and BrineWhile Savage Her Reply was a long version of just one tale, in Tangleweed and Brine, we have an entire collection, cleverly separated into seven tangled tales of earth, and six salty tales of water. They can be dipped in and out of and are best read over a period of time, because they demand our attention, require reflection and strip the old tales of their illusory inclinations, suggesting quite frankly what really was going on with Red Riding Hood and her fellow heroines.

It helps to be familiar with the tales before reading, because they aren’t told as they might be to a child. These stories are narrated by the author, often in the second person “you” voice, acknowledging and bearing witness to our heroine, recounting what she experienced back to her and to us, the reader – we who thought we knew, because you know, we read those stories or had them read to us – we now sit back and read in shock, the harsh reality of these women’s lives. Sullivan is paying homage, setting the record straight, we must not turn away. No longer.

So which tales are twisted, those that glorified these heroines lives and made us believe in Prince Charming, bad witches and vicious wolves or these tales that tell of brave and resilient heroines, surviving betrayals, neglect, judgement, cruelty, abandonment and finally have their stories told by the courageous, intuitive teacher, seer, Ms Sullivan.

Part One – Tangleweed

Slippershod (Cinderella)

Cast thoughts aside of which slipper she wears and what she dreams of, Cinderella has a different destiny and the memory of a truer love, she is resourceful and retains her inner self-worth; She is patient and knows when to act.

“Stretching on the bed, with soft bread in your mouth, the taste of butter, you wonder what they are doing at the ball. Who the prince will dance with. The love he’ll choose, the girls he will discard. There’s nothing gentle in that kind of power. You close your eyes. There is a different world. Where people do things, make things. Carve them out. You breathe the thick, soft air. It smells of hops. You smile and square your shoulders. Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spread wide and you have flown, you’ve flown.”

The Woodcutter’s Bride (Red Riding Hood)

Tangleweed and Brine Deirdre SullivanThis tale can be told by the title and beautiful illustration by Karen Vaughan. There is one picture for every story and within them often lurk clues. As I read the opening paragraphs and saw the illustration, the reality of who really was the wolf, the colour of that cape, hit me like a punch. The horror of those trophies. 

“When I was a small girl something happened to me in the forest. I can’t recall exactly what it was. It’s hard to trust tales from the lips of grandmothers; they come out wrong, too dirty or too clean. Since then I have not felt the same about the forest, I liked it once I think or I think I think. It’s beautiful but on its inky edges  something stirs to fidget with my gut. It’s getting dark; my husband will be home soon. I bite down on my lips to make them red.

Come Live Here and Be Loved (Rapunzel)

“Your husband’s face afraid when you inform him. A happy sort of fear.  To grow a person is no little thing. It isn’t like a turnip or a spud. It’s not so simple, weaving vein and bone. Your sense of smell wolf-sharp and, oh, the hunger. You ache with it.  It gnaws at you, untrammelled through your gut. The pang of it so sharp, like teeth, like fury. A starving ache that cannot be suppressed.”

You Shall Not Suffer (Hansel and Gretel)

She lives in a world that discards the weak easily, she prefers to save lives, to nurture, or at least try to save them. She doesn’t fit the mould of what is expected, so she chooses another way, another life, a way to be herself, a house in the woods. When they abandon their litters now, they blame the witch in the woods, yet still they come to her for help, seek her healing powers.

“You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft thing small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sister Fair (Fair, Brown and Trembling)

This is an Irish fairy tale of three sisters, that was unknown to me, one of jealousy, betrayal and redemption.

“It’s not about being sensible, or strong. It’s not about being kind. It’s not about the  soft touch and the kind heart.  Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.”

Ash Pale (Snow White)

coniferous trees covered with snow in sunny winter day

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

This story turns the classic tale on its head and Snow White uses skills Her mother taught her to ensure she isn’t dispossessed of her place, when her father remarries. 

“You look at her the same way you always did. Perhaps a little kinder. Now that she’s disappearing. Not a threat. You can see her folding into herself like crumpled parchment. Changing who she is to please him.”


Part Two – Brine

Consume Or Be Consumed (A Little Mermaid)

This was actually the first tale I read, especially after finishing Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters in which we are led to believe that one of the protagonists is seduced by a siren. Here the mermaid spends time among humans and sees what it is to be a woman, the sacrifice.

“These things with half of you on pairs of legs. They don’t look right.  There’s something off about it.  You often stare. Sometimes you close your eyes. So many of them. So much of this world.

On land, a woman doesn’t matter much.  You miss it. Or you used to. Your skin is slightly tinged with subtle blue.  They think that makes you lady-like. The colour of a person matters here. Who were you once, and what was done to you. They speculate. A quiet thing is often seen as docile. They say their secrets, spew out all their bile as you sit silently beside the window. Staring at the waters, lapping out. Everything is still here, always, always. And it should move. You long for it to move.”

Doing Well (The Frog Prince)

woman wearing crown holding frog figurine

Photo: Susanne JutzelerPexels.com

A terrible tale of a princess born into bondage, to a frog, she has no choice, no say, no rights. She belongs to this slimy amphibian and must do his bidding, worse than a slave.

“You have been marked from birth for just this purpose. Cloistered with the others. Secret spaces deep within this space where girls are trained. But there are passageways to keep you safe.”

The Tender Weight (Bluebeard)

Originally a French folktale, this story is given a different twist, though the inevitability of its outcome remains. A story of repetitions, of a curse, of an attempt to break it, of an unfounded reputation, a desire to break free.

“You do not have to ask him what he did.  You know that it was nothing. There doesn’t have to be a reason here The world will steal what little crumbs you grasp. The loves you have can die and be reborn.The memory of pain will cling. Will cling. And you will never let yourself forget. That this has happened.”

Riverbed (Donkeyskin)

two brown donkeys

Photo by chris carroll on Pexels.com

Another French fairytale originally from 1695, in which a daughter has to resort to extremes to protect herself from her father’s indecorous intentions. In this retelling,rather than hide and wait for him to come to his senses and she retain her good virtue, the young woman is uncompromising, will time her strike, will be as effective and more virtuous in her rule. And pay homage to the innocnet hard-working, long-suffering donkey.

“There is a soft rebellion to a donkey. It is a working thing. But it resents. I am fond of this. When I am cold or lonely in the castle. When I’m afraid, I often find myself around the stables, stroking them as long as they permit. Which is a goodly time. They trust me now. I earned it. Growing up, and being gentle, kind.”

The Little Gift (The Goose Girl)

Another from the Brothers Grimm collection, originally this story tells the tale of a maid servant who turns on her princess when they are travelling and forces her to swap places, making an oath never to tell. The princess becomes the maid who cares for the geese, until the prince learns of what took place and tricks the false princess into choosing her punishment. In the retelling, we learn whose idea it was to change places, the reneging on a promise, betrayal. What some will do for love, the selfishness of the entitled.

“A goose can try its best to be a swan. Conceal the ruddy beak, the grating honk. But swans as geese? The air cries out to them. It’s not enough. They want clean sheets and gold. The softer life. And when I visit and stroke her face, I see her clear blue eyes upon my jewels. She does not see their weight, only their lustre. She knows they should be hers. She wants them back.”

Beauty and the  Board (Beauty and the Beast)

The death of the mother leaves Beauty vulnerable, but there is a presence she can contact through the board, invite in for her protection, to deal with the ever present danger. She becomes they.

“You are a thing. A beast without a home. I know that, how it feels. And I would have you share a place in me.”

Further Reading

Article: What Will Build and Break a Girl: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Tangleweed and Brine is a book about women within fairy-tales. And their internal lives, as they realise their place in the world. How trapped they are. Some of them rebel, and some retreat. I wanted to write about different sorts of women, quiet ones and strong ones, women with different shaped bodies, different shaped brains. I wanted to take the stories of my childhood, and put the things we learn early on into a world where marrying a stranger is seen as a happy ending, and pride is something women shouldn’t feel.


Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply Deirdre SullivanI was drawn to read this having never heard of the Irish myth, fairytale The Children of Lir and I was intrigued by the Gaelic names and words. I’m planning to read Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of shorter retold stories by the same author as well.

I loved the structure of the book, the italicised pages preceding some chapters that narrate a classic version of the tale, followed by the author’s chapter which provides greater depth and is told from the point of view of Aife, the middle sister, married off to Lir after her sister died in childbirth, who casts a spell on these children that disgraces her forever, and is punished in turn.

In an interview the author speaks of having an affection for the story since first encountering an illustrated version, as a child in the Galway City Library.

I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know.

Fostered, Remarried & Step-Mothered

I can imagine she is usually depicted as sinister, she is a stepmother after all and they seemed destined to not be capable of any act of kindness or heroism in storytelling across all cultures, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least she will encounter forgiveness. I did hold out hope that perhaps the author might have dug deeper or stretched the imagination to somehow redeem this woman’s callous actions even more. I wish there could have been room for more engagement with the source of her pain and regret.

It is a strange tale as her actions seem to be on account of her character – or perhaps due to a deep unacknowledged resentment at having been severed and separated, along with her two sisters, from their parents at a young age – rather than any apparent bad treatment by the husband or father as one might expect. Something in her motive remains a mystery despite the little soul searching she does.

“Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me.”

Calligrams, Poems and the Artful Language Of Ogham

The artwork and use of feathers is brilliant, I enjoyed that each chapter had a mysterious, almost cryptic illustration of calligrams and poems laid out in particular shapes, their titles words from a language I’d never heard of. The shapes mimic the characters (and many letters are said to be linked to trees), using letters of the earliest Irish medieval alphabet Ogham.

I couldn’t help but add my own little autumn tree representation to some of the pages below, the photos can be seen and read more clearly in this thread I created here. It is a day for rituals after all.

Reaffirming once again (having just read A Ghost in the Throat) the importance of poetry, storytelling and creativity to Irish myth and culture, in its many forms.

The Author, Deirdre Sullivan

is an award winning author from Galway, Ireland and this is her tenth book, which has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award 2020. Her collection of dark and witchy fairytale retellings, Tangleweed and Brine won Book of the Year at the 2018 Children’s Books Ireland awards and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Her play Wake was performed at No Ropes theatre company in February 2019.

Further Reading

Interview: A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Naondel, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish).

Naondel The Red Abbey Chronicles feminist fantasy WIT MonthNaondel is the name of the ship that will bring the First Women to the island of Menos.

We have already been on the island in the first book of this series, Maresi, where there have been mentions of the names of those who came here first. We know about the safety of this island, a place from which men are forbidden to set foot and we know from the stories of those who are on the island of the menace that exists elsewhere.

The Abbey must never forget what was endured to create this refuge for our successors, a place where women can work and learn side by side.

Now we go back to the beginning, to when these women lived in their own very different communities, with their families and learn how they came to be living together, imprisoned within the same household, there due to the desire of one man, and what it was that drives them ultimately to leave everything behind and seek refuge on this island.

Thus, most of the novel is spent in the oppressive ‘diarahesi’, the place of confinement where Iskan, the Vizier has brought the women within the palace of Ohaddin, to serve and service him. It is an idle life of entrapment, where they have no power over their lives or of their children, reduced to objects of one man’s desire.

I am not unhappy. There is no space inside me for unhappiness.  I am shedding my skin.  Beneath this old skin is one even older.  It is thick and hardy. It shall endure. It has scars along the wrists – one for each offering…With the power of this place  flowing through me, with an offering to the veins of the earth – blood for blood –  there are no walls that can stop the old Garai from emerging.

For Kabira, this place was once her home, long before its inhabitants were eliminated, its geography changed to suit the man who made her his wife. She had powers that came from Anji, something he would steal from her and misuse, bringing decades of torment.

There are few whom I have loved in my overlong life. Two of them I have betrayed. One I have killed. One has turned her back on me. And one has held my death in his hand. There is no beauty in my past. No goodness. Yet I am forcing myself to look back and recall Ohaddin, the palace, and all that came to passe therein.

As each woman joins the diarhesi, with their unique skills and talent, though they initially are weakened by this small life they are bound to; unbeknown to them, they are being prepared for something greater, that will pave the way for others, allowing them too to dream of escape, to a place where women can be safe, healed, educated and thrive.

Naondel Red Abbey Chronicles WIT MonthThe darkness these women endure, the evil that is perpetuated by their ruler, is only alleviated by the foreknowledge that we already know these women will eventually escape it. So we read in anticipation of that event, in the meantime getting to know each of them and the powers they had before they were enslaved.

And so we learn the stories of Kabira the First Mother, Clararas who led their flight, Garai the High Priestess, Estegi the servant and second Mother, Orseola the Dreamweaver, Sulani the Brave, Daera the first Rose, and Iona, who was lost.

Each women is so interesting, it’s almost a pity that we know only as much of her story, as is required to bring her to the palace. Maria Turtschaninoff writes interesting female protagonists, each of the unique and together an even greater force, if they can release themselves from the misused power their master has stolen and act together.

While the women live under the rule of a villainous man, the author never had the intention to create an anti-men series, however the book centres on the lives of the women and how they deal with their dilemma.

We have seen more women in fantasy recently, but they are still very much alone. One lone, strong girl, surrounded by men. And she’s always an anomaly, the one girl. So for me it was important building a community, and my point is not to support the myth that girls can’t be friends.

Fortunately it appears that she has re-entered this world and told the stories of two other characters, which hopefully will be picked up by a publisher and translated into English.

I already have two books published in Swedish and Finnish set in this world, but in very different parts of it, telling very different sorts of stories: Arra and Anaché. One is the story of a mute girl who can hear the songs of the world, and the other of a nomad girl who challenges her whole tribe’s gender norms in order to save her people. Each book I have written has left me with characters and story threads I would love to keep exploring.

Further Reading

My review of Maresi, Book 1 in The Red Abbey Chronicles