(Illustration by Shaun Tan)
“If you opened the handbag the wrong way, though, you found yourself in a dark land that smelled like blood. That’s where the guardian of the purse (the dog whose skin had been been sewn into a purse) lived. The guardian had no skin. Its howl made blood come out of your ears and nose. It tore apart anyone who turned the clasp in the opposite direction and opened the purse in the wrong way.” (Kelly Link, “The Faery Handbag”)
So one of my new peers said that something about my recent workshop submission reminded her of “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link. Now that I’ve read the story, I can say with certainty that 1) she was being way too nice, and 2) oh, man, I only WISH that my story had the same kind of awesome magic as in “The Faery Handbag.”
“The Faery Handbag” is narrated by Genevieve, a girl who spends every week searching in thrift stores for her Grandmother Zofia’s lost faery handbag. “The clasp was made out of bone,” and if it was opened a certain way, it turned into a regular purse; if opened another way, the person holding it ended up in a boat floating on a river by the fairies’ (the Baldeziwurlekistanians’) dwelling; if opened a third way, it turned into a dog, kind of. I don’t want to give away more.
The faery handbag: It’s huge and black and kind of hairy. Even when your eyes are closed, it feels black. As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar or black quicksand or when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.
Fairies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.
Grandmother Zofia said it was a family heirloom. She said that it was over two hundred years old. She said that when she died, I had to look after it. Be its guardian. She said that it would be my responsibility.
The chronology of the story roves around because as Genevieve says, “It’s hard work telling everything in the right order.” I love her voice, which is young and real and like talking with an earnest friend. From the way she tells this story, and retells Zofia’s stories told to her, I accepted that there was this faery handbag that had people living inside it. But I loved that a skeptical reader/listener could also think, these are just outlandish excuses made up by a batty Grandmother, excuses for why her husband left, why her library books are overdue, etc.
I love this story. I love all the fine details of it. I love Zofia, who is a rockin’ grandmother, and her voice and all the things she calls Genevieve, like “mouthful of dumpling.” I LOVE so much how she tells her granddaughter why she should never go back to a guy’s place.
Having read it, I think my fellow workshopper saw my character Miss Emmaline as being reminiscent of Zofia in that Miss Emmaline also brings to her granddaughter (and her granddaughter’s friend, my narrator) this strange world that is real and not. Except Miss Emmaline is much less charming than Zofia. And much less fleshed out. But I’m working on it!
(Illustration by Charles Vess)
The purse was “big enough to hold all of the village and all of the people under the hill and mountains and forests and seas and rivers and lakes and orchards and a sky and stars and spirits and fabulous monsters and sirens and dragons and dryads and mermaids and beasties and all the little gods that the Baldeziwurlekistanians and the people under the hill worshipped.” (Kelly Link, “The Faery Handbag”)