A bold and beautiful retelling of a favourite Irish legend
Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan, Little Island Books
"And when you read about the things I did, the thing that I've become, try your best to reach out and to meet me. Here."
Savage Her Reply is a compelling and unsettling retelling of The Children of Lir, narrated by the story's villain. In the original tale, a wicked stepmother, Aífe, is jealous of her husband Lir's affection for his children and turns them into swans. The key events are unchanged in this version, but are imbued with fresh significance when told instead from Aífe's perspective.
Author Deirdre Sullivan gives Aífe a voice for the first time. There are strong women in Aífe's world - goddesses, warriors, mothers - but few have agency over their destinies. Girls are offered as gifts to appease or "vex" opponents, used to forge alliances, and even stolen (as Aífe claims happened to Niamh of Tír na nÓg). Aífe says her sister Aébh, Lir's first wife, "belonged" to him, "pressed into his hand like a brooch".
According to Aífe, so many women are "torn into shreds" while their stories are eclipsed by the powerful men with whom they are associated. Aífe wonders if Lir had killed her before she wreaked vengeance on his offspring, "would people be too busy forgiving him to remember who I was?"
We see a different, sinister side to Lir, and all of the characters are more complex, flawed and tangible than their earlier incarnations. Savage Her Reply delves deeper than any of its predecessors and intricately explores the implications of the terrible curse and what led to it. We learn how Lir's children experience their fate in vivid detail but are also aware of the effect their transformation has on Aífe. By placing her at the story's centre, we understand what motivated Aífe and discover what happens to her afterwards.
Even though this is Aífe's story, the swans still feature prominently. From "the screams of them. For all they had endured," to their "webbed feet on the dry ground," they are a very real and constant presence. The Four, as Aífe calls them, seem always in her thoughts, as is her guilt about what she has done to them. It's an extremely tragic tale for all involved, not just the cursed children.
This is a book that really gets under your skin. I read it over Christmas and have been unable to stop thinking about it since. I was struck by the elegance and beauty of the prose. Sullivan is an exceptional writer. Her evocative style is as haunting as it is graceful, and every bit as powerful as the sorceress her story brings to life.
Sullivan's words cast their own spell, giving the reader the sensation of grass underfoot, the smell of lake water, the rustling of wind through forests, and whispers in an ancient tongue. The children not only change into swans but also become dishevelled, missing feathers, with wings twisted and deformed as time goes on. Sullivan's skilful use of language makes it possible to feel what she describes as strongly as you can picture it. We are painfully aware of Aífe's suffering and tortured, transient state, and seem to travel on the air with her.
Speaking to the Irish Times, Sullivan credits Michael Scott's version of The Children of Lir, illustrated by Jim Fitzpatrick, as sparking her interest in this legend and in Aífe. I grew up near Lough Derravaragh, where the swans lived for 300 years, had the same book, and was obsessed with this story as a child. Despite being so familiar with it, I had completely forgotten that the arrival of Christianity in Ireland was integral to the plot.
Sullivan handles this wonderfully. Aífe is dismissive of the monk Mochaomhóg and refers to the "holy people" as follows: "And they were clever, these people. They knew what people needed from the old gods, so they left traces. Bridget, Mary, festivals and wells. In the way of tricksters, they claimed to give and sought to take. And some of them knew it, and some of them fervently believed what they were bringing. There are those who want to matter and end up leaving scars."
I'd love to know more about the history of this legend, especially as, for me, the religious elements seem out of place in the original version. I wonder if the story was appropriated and altered, or pieced together from fragments of other folklore by early Christians who, like the ones in this story, "knew what people needed from the old gods".
Savage Her Reply is a gorgeous hardback with ornate pen and ink illustrations by Karen Vaughan, an artist whose work is also inspired by folk tales. There are calligrams at the beginning of every chapter, arranged like Ogham. Each one is as poignant and expertly crafted as a poem. There are vignettes by Karen Vaughn throughout the book which show branches with leaves gradually changing to swan's feathers as the story progresses, reflecting what is happening and foreshadowing what is to come.
This won Teen and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2020 Irish Book Awards and Book of the Year at the KPMG Children's Books Ireland Awards, and it's easy to see why. Although I always loved this story, Sullivan's version is definitely my favourite. Intriguing, invigorating, ferocious, feminist, provocative, profound and absolutely exquisite, Savage Her Reply takes a solid piece of bronze and spins it into gold filigree.
If you're interested in reading more reviews of books based on Irish folklore, see also: