Review: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan (illustrated by Karen Vaughan)

by Mary Esther Judy

Review: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan
(Winner of the KPMG/Childrens Books Ireland Book of the Year 2021)

The Children of Lir: Aife marries Lir, a king with a daughter and three sons by his previous wife. But Aifes’ jealousy of his love for the children, drives her to commit a terrible act. She casts a spell on the children, turning them into swans cursed to fly from one place to another for nine hundred years…an ancient tale that we all know well. But here, it is reborn in Aifes’ voice.

Taken far from the security of her home, Aife and her sisters are fostered by Bodhbh the Red; used for whatever talents they may have; used as bargaining chips in ever ongoing negotiations, while chiefs and kings vie for power. Aifes’ sister, Aebh is married off to Lir. She works hard to ensure his happiness and gives him four children. But not being strong, Aebh dies after the birth of the second set of twins. Lir needs a new wife and he will have Aife. She is given no say in the matter. Haunted by the early loss of her home and family, the overwhelming grief at the death of her sister and constant mistreatment from Lir, she is lost, desperate and possessed of a growing fury. Aife determines to carve a place for herself…or rain a brutal justice down upon Lir. Her power grows and the heartless, vengeful curse is cast. But there is a terrible price…and Aife will pay it.

Fairytales and legends were never meant to be stagnant, but to grow and reveal the truth inside them. Written in exquisite, flowing prose, Savage Her Reply gives us a retelling of the old legend that has done exactly that. All the familiar elements are there, but turned inside out and given a new voice that takes us into the original tale, while it reverberate into the here and now; as part of who we are and how we live today.

The forms of the Ogham alphabet characters placed as poems, thoughts, introductions add to the sense that what we are reading is something essential.  It’s telling is positively mesmerising.  It is solely through Aifes’ eyes that we follow the children/swans’ plight, and begin to understand and feel her growing sense of powerlessness and rage. Aife is a woman with no voice, no real value and this drives her to descends into a state of madness.

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Sullivan's output in recent years has been prolific She's become something of a favourite at LitVox.Her latest collection of stories, "I want to Know that I Will Be Ok" was published in May, and is a wonderfully imaginative body of work.

. After her heinous act, she is cursed to wander the world as a dark spirit; the thing that causes that unexplained sense of doom. And we become part of the fabric of Aifes’  tale as we realise that the curse upon her is everlasting…echoing into our world, even now. Enchanted into a new comprehension as if the very words of the story are a spell in and of themselves, we must stay with the myth. It cuts away any previous caricature of past versions and scrapes down to the bones, revealing each character in their true nature; complex, conflicted, light and dark.

Throughout, we find refined, delicate pen and ink renderings; illuminations by the deft, ingenious hand of Karen Vaughan. Always perfect to the tone of the action, these simple drawings add much to the story as a whole and to the beautiful presentation of the book, as it takes its’ place on the shelf as the classic that it is.

Unsettling, empowering, beautifully brutal and simply extraordinary; this is spell-working at its’ very finest. You can pick up your copy of Savage Her Reply from the LitVox Bookshop here.