» Book Review
Review: H & G By Anna Maria Hong
Sidebrow Books, 2018.
Paperback, 59 pages, $15.00.
Winner, Clarissa Dalloway Prize, A Room of Her Own Foundation
Anna Maria Hong’s H & G is a darkly postmodern and feminist revisioning of the classic Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” that plumbs the depths of patricidal hatred, inherited misogyny, and the unsuccessful search for a family that is more than kin and less than kind. Intensely surrealist in its warped depictions of the traditional fantasy world in which the novella orients itself, while also exceedingly realist in the complexity of its main and supporting characters, Hong’s reification of the Brothers Grimm text is a meta-fictive trek into the dark recesses of the human psyche from which readers won’t want to return.
To call this novella a work of fabulist fiction is perhaps too simplistic a label, though the text wears its magical mundanity in quite an enchanting fashion. As great fabulist fictions—and to some extent, great fairy tales—do, Hong’s writing orients the reader in a fantastical situation or setting before propelling them into ever-deepening waters of ethics, philosophy, and cultural critique through the power of allegory and metaphor. As is the case with fairy tales, Hong’s work is instructive and has a motley cast of trope-like characters to fill archetypal roles: the father, the mother, the evil stepmothers, the witches, and the two children, Hansel and Gretel, referred to as H. and G., respectively. This, however, is where most of the similarities between the fairy tale and Hong’s work end. Hong stays true to fairy tale form inasmuch as it serves her greater purposes—she plays to the tropes in order to break them and keeps true to most of the particulars of “Hansel and Gretel” until intervening personal narratives and real-world elements interpose in the story and make it decidedly not a fairy tale, revisionist or otherwise. One-dimensional character types are rendered with human complexity and qualities, so much so that even the “villains” in H & G are given sympathetic backstories and motivations that impress upon the reader their humanness without absolving them of their flaws.
One scene with a markedly fabulist bent is in the chapter titled “H. Is Praying To The Great Eye.” In this section, H. makes a pilgrimage up the mountain each day to the New Witch’s hut to nurse from her breast—assuming the role of both the sacrificial offering and the one who proffers the sacrifice to this deity-like being—in order to save the world. Bizarre and grossly sexual, the conceit is a fascinating one, exploring the depravity of codependent relationships that stem from unhealthy obsessions and childhood fears of abandonment:
Someday the New Witch will tire of me too—prayer and fate of the world be
damned—or she will die and either way I’ll be abandoned again, surmises H.
Alone with nothing but this rocky, dirty peak to climb, and empty hut at the top.
By H. nursing from the New Witch and bringing a part of her into H.’s body, two things happen narratively: the New Witch’s face is restored to youth (though H. remarks that her body is still flat and shriveled as a hag’s), and H. is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking and not giving anything back but pleasure, which, he says, is incidental to the giver. H. is a supplicant—worshipful, dutiful—not from a wholly religious or sexual desire, or even to save the world as the New Witch remarks, but because in this H. has found what he believes is a sense of belonging. In a mere three pages, Hong builds a tiny world and fills this world with searching philosophical questions—what do we make of the reciprocal, if any, relationship between God and Believer? As Hong puts it,
If the Believer stopped believing, would the world cease to exist? H. thinks it
wiser to not risk it, so he prays every day, climbing the green and brown peaks,
until he reaches the New Witch’s hut where he will suck on the Witch’s cold
tits, ripe and smooth as the flesh of pale green fruit.
What of attention misplaced and masquerading as affection or as physical and emotional nurturing?: “The Witch strokes his golden hair as she suckles him, telling him how good he has been, how sturdy he is, how well he climbed the mountain, how good he is to save the world like this . . .”. What of the emotionally scarred person who can only take and take and in the process destroys what’s left of themselves?: “H. sucks like his life depends on it, because it is what he is good at—the only thing he has always been good at—eating, siphoning dominion and beauty from powerful women who want to save him and eat him.” In posing these questions, Hong conjures the familiar fairy tale into something fierce and dangerous, something so very heartbreaking that we want to look away, yet, enraptured by the story’s unfolding, cannot.
In H & G, the story becomes the stories, a twinning effect enhanced by the meta-fictive qualities of the writing. In this regard, H & G is intensely postmodern and feminist: experimental with its points of view (first-person plural, second-person, and third-person omniscient) and its many non-prose forms (bulleted lists, poems, blocks of prose that read as poetry, and, most interestingly, the inclusion of the alternate story endings that continuously pull the reader in and out of the text in order to hone in on story implications for our real and the story’s imagined worlds). Yet it also addresses real-life sexism and abuse of a hegemonic patriarchal society. Hong writes these fractured wholes as her own trail of leading breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, from context to context, from one rhetorical situation to the next, while bringing complexity and richness and a sense of wonder with her poignant and bittersweet tellings.