In something of a Carter-esque vein, Kirsty Logan’s debut collection of modern fairy tales, The Rental Heart and Other Stories, includes both tales of her own invention and seeks to add new flavour to old stories. Each short story presents the reader with an immersive fantastical world through which they may journey: the land of the antlered girl and the tiger-tailed boy; the world of the “bitch goddess warrior queen”, Baba Yaga; the “Tiger Palace” of the “beautiful but cruel empress”.
The Rental Heart won the 2013 Scott Prize and garnered an abundance of praise for Logan. It is easy to see why it has met with so much success. Infused with an intriguing sense of the uncanny, Logan’s reinventions of traditional fairy tales succeed where so many other modern retellings, both literary and filmic, have failed. A sense of gritty realism permeates The Rental Heart. The fantastical element of the stories simply serves to disguise the real world; take, for example, Logan’s brief yet striking reimagining of “Sleeping Beauty” into an utterly devastating tale of sexual abuse – “She wakes with his fingers inside her”.
However, the pieces in The Rental Heart were not written as a collection but rather were composed individually, and at times the book lacks a sense of cohesion. Her structures are varied: “Sleeping Beauty”, written in three parts, is told backwards, “Underskirts” and “Tiger Palace” are characterised by a multiplicity of perspectives; “Underskirts” offers a range of nuanced voices which, taken together, form a collective depiction of the tale’s subject, while “Tiger Palace” moves back and forth between the voices of its two protagonists. “Bibliophagy”, the tale of a man who, suffocated by family life, binges on words; it comprises three sections, each of which gives accounts of different instances where its protagonist has succumbed to binging – “He lifts the words. He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus. He swallows.”
“Bibliophagy” is particularly interesting in that the tale becomes a mirror in which the reader may see their own reflection: we, just like the protagonist, are essentially binging on The Rental Heart’s words to escape our own reality. Logan does not shy away from the peculiar and the oddity of her expression is at times absolutely exquisite. Indeed, the real strength of this work lies in her extraordinary writing style. “She was dreadlocked, greeneyed, full of verbs. She smelled of rain and revolution”, writes Logan of one character. In turn, this peculiarity of expression lends itself beautifully to the steampunk aesthetic characteristic of many of the stories which exist purely as a product of Logan’s imagination, such as “Coin-Operated Boys” and “The Rental Heart”.
Shaping the fairy tale into a contemporary form, these stories replace traditional folkloric fantasy characters with very modern hybrids of man and machine. “Coin-Operated Boys” presents a love triangle between a man, a woman and a coin-operated boy; a mechanical boy fuelled by coins and available as a “perfect” substitute for a flawed human suitor. “The Rental Heart” introduces the idea that one can rent manufactured heart models, ever-progressing with “extras I’d never seen, like timers and standby buttons and customised beating patterns”, so that one’s heart need never be broken. The collection as a whole suggests technology as a solution for difficult emotion, yet is ultimately rejected by Logan’s protagonists for it only serves to eradicate their humanity – “The heart was dusty and tarnished and utterly empty”.
The only drawback of The Rental Heart is, perhaps, the consistently adolescent perspective of love and lust which dominates the collection, at times becoming wearying. This being said, Logan’s treatment of thematic concerns, and her beautifully crafted expression are worthy of much praise. This is a tremendous debut and Kirsty Logan is most certainly one to watch.