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A big gross frog takes up most of the frame. He's wearing a crown, and has splashed in a puddle. A book to the right - The Frog Prince - has a few drips on it.
Throw the damn frog against the wall already (Image: Lezh via Getty; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksFebruary 20, 2022

The fairytale of the frog prince badly needs a rewrite. But not like this.

A big gross frog takes up most of the frame. He's wearing a crown, and has splashed in a puddle. A book to the right - The Frog Prince - has a few drips on it.
Throw the damn frog against the wall already (Image: Lezh via Getty; Design: Tina Tiller)

Claire Mabey reviews The Frog Prince, the debut adult novel by Canterbury poet and children’s fiction writer, James Norcliffe. 

When I was five years old a boy proposed to me at the bus stop in front of everyone. And I still die. He threw his arms around me and crushed my giant school bag into my back and said “I love you Claire and I am going to marry you.” I think it was around that time that I decided I was going to be a nun. 

It was the very early 90s and I’m sure he was a sweet little guy but I still feel the panic rising, the embarrassment, the shock of having someone literally smother you with their desire to own you. 

In the original Grimm brother’s version of The Frog Prince the princess gets so enraged by the frog blackmailing her into letting it sleep in her bed that she picks it up and throws it against the wall as hard as she can. Unfortunately the bastard thing doesn’t die but instead turns into a prince and bam! Her story ends and his picks up. It’s a perfect little horror and I kind of love it. It’s a warning: men will think you owe them something. 

It’s this precise scenario that kicks off The Frog Prince. Cara, an American teacher working in France, vanishes after an unwanted marriage proposal from David (who chooses to whip out the ring in a graveyard on the edges of a dark forest in Venusberg (lol), Germany). David, also a teacher, is a New Zealander enchanted by Europe’s war memorials and graveyards, who has been unsuccessfully married before, to a briefly mentioned Heidi who walked out on him “out of the blue” after three years. In the first few pages we surmise that David doesn’t get Cara (to him she’s “a mess of contradictions”), is timid about sex and is wounded that Cara doesn’t quite ever give him what he wants: “To David’s disappointment, their lovemaking has always been on Cara’s terms: playful rather than with the intensity and reciprocal passion that David yearned for.” 

After Cara disappears, the contemporary story that plip, plops along in her vacuum is David’s. This is a shame. Because David is fusty, meandering, “pathetically Victorian”. David’s regret about their “relationship” (which at one point sounds like it was only a few weeks) takes the form of blaming Cara for somehow tricking him into thinking they were closer than they were: “How selective she had been: how deceptive. She had revealed her body (so beautiful), her wit (so clever), her sense of fun (so enjoyable), but these things had blinded him to the fact that she revealed little else.” David’s story slubs on to reveal a suspicious kind of disdain for other women around him too. His exchange with Arlene, the school’s counsellor, is pitched as an emotional battleground in which he is a lamb to Arlene’s slaughter. When Arlene, quite reasonably, asks if he’s heard anything from Cara his reaction is to think that “Arlene was clearly here for a tete-a-tete about Cara’s disappearance and had nothing to offer apart from some pointless platitudes. In exchange she would suck his emotions dry.” David’s spineless, all-woman-are-out to-hurt-me schtick is the equivalent of having a damp frog on your pillow, invading your personal space, oblivious to your indifference, and croaking on anyway.

Huntingdon International School in Arras, France, where David and Cara both teach, represents the Castle in Norcliffe’s retelling. It’s claustrophobic, pseudo-posh; it smacks of smug English tweeness of the worst kind. Huntingdon is ruled by career principal Michael (an Oxbridge graduate, who got the job via his wife’s father, he has “a decanter of the good Amontillado in the sideboard” and self-consciously wears “a reefer jacket, and university tie”). His wife, Miranda, is at one point described as having “rower’s shoulders and a powerful sex drive”. Her primary function in the story is to relish, and hypothesise, on the scandal of an absent female teacher. When Cara disappears it’s Miranda who concludes that the whole thing is somehow “a perversion of the frog prince story … Cara kissed her frog and promptly disappeared.” She’s also the one who reveals that Cara may have had a fling with the novel’s resident toad, Angus, the whiffy, sleazy art teacher who somehow pulls off the magic trick of being more than tolerated by everyone around him.

It’s through Angus that the throughline of misogyny in fairytales is yanked and spun. While David is simply a frog, Angus is the “unprince” of the story. At one point he casually drops child porn into a conversation. He makes bad jokes about kidnapping people, and comments about the looks of his young students. He’s definitely someone that you’d want to fling against a wall if he tried to wheedle his way into your bedchamber. What is potent about both Angus and David is that they’re terrified of female sexuality. And that comes to an early and patent head when Angus suggests to investigating police officer Véronique that perhaps Cara was a succubus, “some sort of female demon that comes in the night with a lust for sex with sleeping men, and leaves only when she’s sucked the life and soul out of them.” Véronique is unamused. Later in the story, Angus has to get blindingly drunk before he can admit to David that he lusted after Cara: “Cara with her clothes off and me drawing with my prick! I was positively priapic the whole time!” And in an act of booze-sodden malice he tells David that he has naked photos of Cara on his phone and that he intended to use them: “‘Never call it blackmail, old son’ the big man said. Gentle Persuasion … Just the possibility of a little rewarding fun.” I have dog-eared pages throughout my copy of this book: mangy signposts of the various ways that Miranda is drawn as a wicked, gossiping, reluctant unmother, and the male characters are total dicks.

Book cover showing bright pink waterlily blooms on dark water; author, an older man, leaning against tree, wearing coat and scarf.
Norcliffe and his first novel for adults (Photo: Sharon Bennett / University of Otago)

In this novel, sex is as stifled and weaponised as it is in Grimm. Norcliffe’s The Frog Prince coincided with my reading of Olivia Laing’s brilliant book Everybody: A Book about Freedom. In it, Laing references the writing of Angela Carter and Andrea Dworkin and their work to unpick female abnegation in Grimm. You don’t have go deep into the canon to find screeds of female characters silenced and labouring under the duress of deceitful magical creatures and kings and princes: Rumpelstiltskin, the Little Mermaid, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (in the original tale she is raped in her sleep by the same prince who “saves” and marries her), Rapunzel … They’re all pretty much fucked but are never allowed to fuck. 

This is where The Frog Prince confused me. In Norcliffe’s hands Cara is given agency. She absents herself from the hellhole of Huntingdon and doesn’t let anyone get up in her business. But despite this the plot is still tied up with Cara suffering the consequences of being a sexually free person (saying more would be a spoiler at this point). Her determined silence sometimes feels uncomfortably close to a silencing. While she’s not there men trespass on her trail: David sneakily moves into her empty apartment and her father barges in – he’s the domineering king character, giving out warnings that daughters eventually stab their fathers in the back. 

This can at times feel in service of Norcliffe’s framework, because if Cara did have too strong a voice it would undermine his main device: the story within the story. Both David, and the reader, are offered up Cara’s YA novel manuscript as a way to glean something of Cara’s interior world and actions. 

Chapters from the manuscript are woven throughout the book as “David’s Story”. We discover that Cara is investigating the women behind the Grimm stories and that she is investigating how The Frog Prince came to be such a strange tale. This is all promising territory: female collaborators! The chance to learn about how the folktales were gathered and what their function was in the society from which they emerged … compelling! Bear with me reader, we are about to double down on the retellings. 

Cara’s heroines are sisters who ferry their oma’s folktales to Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. When their oma dies they decide to write their own tale and try to pass it off as an old one. The inspiration for their story is one sister’s lust for elusive, workaholic Jacob. Together they construct a tale with a hidden message, one that will say “Jacob you’re a prince and me your princess”. It’s quite a stretch yet they thrash it out and come up with a sweet-tempered princess who tenderly touches the frog out of the goodness of her heart. The prince is transformed, “humbly begs her to consider becoming my bride”, and she accepts in an instant.

Wilhelm somehow sees right through the allegory and will not have it. Determined that his  brother be spared the “pestilence and distraction” of an adoring fan (who has the potential to derail Jacob’s attention to the making of the fortunes of his family), Wilhelm embarks on a rewrite with the help of Dortchen Wild and his sister Lotte (both real figures who contributed many stories to the Grimm collection). Working into something of a frenzy he introduces the character of the king who insists the princess keep her promise to the frog, and then transforms her into “a shallow, perfidious, tiny-minded” woman who ultimately throws the frog against the wall after he asks to sleep on her bed. For the final flourish, Wilhelm writes himself into the story as Heinrich, the prince’s faithful servant who comes to collect the newly engaged couple and hijacks the story with a final, really weird, scene.

Dortchen and Lotte are not convinced – though they are pressed into acceptance by Wilhelm, who is yet another overbearing, arrogant man to suffer in this novel. The women seem to have no influence at all and only serve to very mildly disagree with, but then support, Wilhelm. Once the sisters learn what has happened it is framed as a life lesson: Jacob is indifferent to her feelings, which should be seen as mere infatuation, and he was never going to change under her influence and maybe she didn’t actually like him anyway. 

There are a few ways to read into all of this. But I feel there are injustices, first to the princess of the original tale, and then to Cara. Scholarship has revealed that The Frog Prince is an old tale, likely to have been passed to the Grimms by Dortchen Wild. Yet in this novel our one tolerable character writes the tale away from female authorship, rejects female rage and reverses it. In her manuscript, Cara hands the original story back to the patriarchy (Wilhelm) to craft and turn a justifiably angry, oppressed woman into “a complete bitch” and it just doesn’t sit right.

The fucking frog is trying to get into her bed! He blackmails her by leveraging her father’s power! It doesn’t match up for me that Cara lacks empathy for the princess when Cara’s own storyline is an attempt to resist the controlling nature of men who think she owes them something.

I love a retelling. And I think Norcliffe’s prose is buoyant and the project of the book is great fun, full of symbols and metaphors that make it atmospheric and at times enchanting. But, and David might understand me here, the context for my reading is a continuation of feminist retellings by Angela Carter, Madeline Miller, Jean Rhys, and more recently and closer to home Whiti Hereaka and Gina Inverarity. They have fun while also doing the serious work of liberating characters oppressed, stressed, and malformed in the mouths of men and frenemies; they burrow into weirdnesses and complexities to open new possibilities for contemporary readers. They allow fulsome female sexuality. Grimm is rich ground for such excavation. The horrors of the original tales are invigorating but ultimately their relentless torture of women makes them sites upon which to exercise the functions of flip, refusal and rebellion. 

And for me, this novel just didn’t flip or refuse enough.

The Frog Prince, by James Norcliffe (RHNZ Vintage, $36) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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