Robin McKinley’s novel, Deerskin, is loosely based on the Charles Perrault fairytale, Donkey Skin. In both stories, a beloved king wants to marry his daughter. His daughter runs away, works menial labor in disguise, and finds love with a prince from another kingdom.
Perrault’s Donkey Skin contains key elements found in other fairy tales. In Cinderella, for example, a glass slipper will only fit the protagonist. Donkey Skin‘s protagonist uses an emerald ring. Like The Goose and the Golden Egg, Donkey Skin features a prized animal that produces gold. Instead of a goose that lays golden eggs, Donkey Skin has a magical donkey that lays golden droppings. (An ass that shits gold? My inner adolescent jumps for joy!)
Sadly, McKinley’s version does not contain any magical gold-excreting animals. In fact, her version goes painfully dark. The king and queen are neglectful, narcissistic parents who are blindly loved by their kingdom but eyed warily by their only daughter, Lissar. As in Donkey Skin, the king plans to marry his daughter, in Deerskin. Lissar escapes that twisted fate but only after the king brutally beats and rapes her, nearly killing her. It was deeply triggering to read.
In the chapters that follow Lissar’s brutal, incestuous rape, McKinley shows us its devastating impact. We see Lissar’s broken psyche and body and her effort to survive, partially by forgetting. McKinley’s treatment of this felt prolonged, repetitious, and overdone but it’s also possible that the content was so raw that I didn’t want to linger any longer than absolutely necessary.
The story continues to get relentlessly dark and depressing, offset with minor protagonist successes. I nearly gave up on the novel a few times. I could not see how this story would ever recover from such low lows.
About halfway through the novel, at a major turning point, magic finally makes an appearance but I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I assumed Lissar was experiencing a grand hallucination brought on from being starved, near death, and deeply traumatized. The magical salvation, which heals her body, disguises her appearance, and costs her five years of her life, just happens to her without her permission or participation. She is as powerless during that recovery as she was during her rape.
Recognizing that parallel made me feel disgusted with the story even though the magic worked in her favor. Because there had been so much powerlessness, I would have preferred that Lissar played a more active role in her turnaround. Or at least have been awake to it. Witnessing a passive, helpless protagonist annoyed me.
Part of the problem for me was that I forgot that this was a fairy tale and that magic tends to happen in them. Sure, fantasy creatures like dragons were referenced in the story but I detected no hint of magic until it was used halfway through the novel. I think I should have been shown that magic existed in that story world well before reaching the midpoint.
After the magical midpoint, the story finally begins to lose some of its heaviness. I began to feel Lissar’s growing strength even though her vulnerability remains.
A powerful aspect of the story was experiencing Lissar’s flashbacks of her tragedy. My reaction was almost visceral because of the groundwork McKinley laid in the first half of the story. I found myself experiencing not only Lissar’s terror but the bewilderment of those who unwittingly triggered it.
Overall, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the story but there were many aspects of it that I really enjoyed and respected. It was emotionally dark and difficult to get through but wasn’t cheapened with an unbelievable, saccharine resolution. It was cautiously hopeful which was the best possible outcome for such a dark tale.