KA's Reviews > Deerskin

Deerskin by Robin McKinley
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Sep 30, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorite-books, fiction

This is a remarkable book, gorgeously written as all McKinley's books are, with a touch more of the mysticism that I also love her for. The plot is based on the fairy tale Donkeyskin, but as usual McKinley transforms the story until only echoes of the fairy tale appear in her story; the effect is that the tale contains both the archetypes of the fairy story and the realism that make the story true to life.

Lissar is the daughter of the greatest king and the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. But the family contains the seeds of its own destruction: the queen is so vain that she gives up on life as she begins to age and lose her flawless beauty. Selfishly, she makes her husband swear not to marry anyone less beautiful than she, as it wouldn't be fair for him to compare his new wife with his first wife's perfection. Their daughter is forgotten until it becomes clear that she is the only rival to her mother's beauty, and then she has to deal with her father's obsessive lust (not to mention the disbelief and blame of the court when they recognize the king's intentions towards his own daughter - she must have bewitched him!).

After suffering a brutal and incestuous rape and the near-loss of her only friend, her dog Ash, Lissar runs away from home. Trying to describe what follows would, I think, only render Lissar's battle for wholeness and sanity mundane-sounding. To McKinley's credit, she never diminishes Lissar's victimization; there is a complete absence of that cruel attitude that says that, to be strong, one must never be a victim. That attitude is a form of victim-blaming: it says that, rather than be traumatized by what's happened to you, you must "refuse to be a victim;" and thus there is less emphasis on stopping the victimizers.

McKinley's protagonist is as strong and as compelling as she is *because* she is a victim, *because* she keeps herself alive while partly wishing she could die. *Because* she loves and allows herself to become vulnerable to loves, despite love's new claims on her heart and conscience. Though she finds herself in caring for the helpless - orphaned puppies, lost children, grieving mothers - these loves do not take the place of Lissar's wholeness, but rather give her the practice she needs at opening her heart, so that one day she can reclaim her wholeness.

Ultimately, Lissar saves herself by divesting herself not only of the pain and rage and blood given her by her father, but also by expelling her mother's jealous spirit. This is a story about blood, and McKinley does not shirk the blood imagery, which should make this truth-telling book a cathartic read for those who have suffered rape, domestic violence, incest, or a dozen other assaults on body and spirit, and those who work with them, too.
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