There are two approaches to fairy tale retellings: ones that re-map the original story as a whole into a new setting that shifts the reader’s vision to a different angle, and ones that take the original premise as a jumping-off point then map entirely new territory thereafter. Walking on Knives by Maya Chhabra is definitely of the second type. The jumping-off point is not one of the more sanitized versions of The Little Mermaid, but something much closer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, complete with hazard to one’s immortal soul and the virtues of physical suffering. Readers who expect a feel-good romance rather than a hard-edged tale of impossible moral choices and unbreakable magical contracts may find themselves off balance.
We have, as a given, the unexplained desire of the mermaid for the prince whose life she saved—a desire so strong she is willing to face enormous risks, sacrifices, and suffering for the merest chance of success. We have the foreign princess who is willing to take credit for the prince’s rescue. But throw into the mix a sister to the sea witch, who has her own goals and desires and is willing to make her own ruthless bargains to achieve them. And crucially, we have a tacit acceptance of same-sex attraction that needs no special pleading or justification.
The story is not about romance, but about working through misunderstandings and barriers to communication. It’s about negotiating your way out of a maze of bad alternatives and choosing which consequences you’re willing to accept. And it’s about the pain that comes from forcing consequences on other people when there is no clean way out. I found the plot delightfully unexpected and challenging. Once it diverged from Andersen’s road map, I had no idea where it was going to take me, but I was satisfied with where I ended up.
The prose style is ambitious, though not always successfully so. There is a wavering between a more formal fairy-tale style and unexpected shifts into colloquial language. Flights of description sometimes veer into excess and I occasionally stumbled over words being used outside their expected meanings. The story has the substance of a fresh and individual voice and I expect that, with practice and maturity, that voice should come into its own.