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Books: Menna van Praag talks fantasy and feminism

Menna van Praag’s much-anticipated new novel, The Sisters Grimm, is a feminist reimagining of some of our best-known fairytales. As she tells Alice Ryan, it’s a transporting fantasy with a real-world message

“I always say it started with my daughter. When she was tiny and wasn’t sleeping, I’d walk her round and round the garden at night and tell her fairytales. I really wanted to tell her a strong, feminist story but, of course, fairytales - which are the first stories we’re told: they’re elemental, in our DNA - are SO unfeminist! I realised that if I wanted to tell that story, I’d have to write it.”

Menna van Praag is talking about The Sisters Grimm, her seventh novel and, best known for her works of magical realism, her first foray into full fantasy. It’s set between contemporary Cambridge and Everwhere, a parallel universe where white leaves fall like snow and our four heroines, the Sisters of the title, discover both supernatural powers and their true selves.

They reach Everwhere via Cambridge’s famously ornate gateways which, at 3.33am on a particular day each lunar month, become a portal to the other world. “I’ve always been a bit obsessed with Narnia; I still check wardrobes,” laughs Menna. “In a way, Everwhere is my tribute to Narnia: that’s why it’s winter there.”

Author Menna van Praag at the gate of The Fitzwilliam Museum whicb features in her new book the first in a triology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34078513)
Author Menna van Praag at the gate of The Fitzwilliam Museum whicb features in her new book the first in a triology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34078513)

The story follows Menna’s modern-day Cinderella, Belle, Red and Snow, deftly switching perspectives as the young women - who played together in Everwhere as children, in a now-forgotten time - remember their pasts and finally reunite. The denouement, equal parts poetic and dramatic, moving and uplifting, sees each weaponise an element: earth, water, fire, air.

“When my editor first read it, he said it had a hallucinogenic quality, which isn’t surprising: I was so sleep deprived, I was practically hallucinating when I wrote it,” laughs Menna. “I pretty much stopped sleeping and, from midnight to around 4am, started to write this story. Though I wouldn’t want to relive that experience - it took me to some dark places - it did give me a gift: I realised the quality of my writing was different. The words just came; it was exhilarating.”

The Sisters are each, in different ways, victorious over men who seek to manipulate and abuse them - Goldie, the Cinderella-inspired character, is groped by a boss who knows her need to keep her job will also keep her quiet. “He was inspired by a real boss I had, when I was waitressing at 19,” says Menna. “Of course I never stood up to him; I was too nice. To write these women fighting back is the best thing I ever did.”

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag (34078820)
The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag (34078820)

There’s a part of Menna written into each of the four, she admits. “When I had my daughter and reached my lowest ebb, I found I didn’t have the energy for social niceties or superficial friendships. I realised I’d spent pretty much my whole life saying yes; now it was time to say no. I’d spent my whole life being ‘a nice girl’, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The Chronicles of Narnia and The Water Babies are among the children’s books Menna credits with sparking her writerly ambitions. A voracious reader, she “decided to be an author at a very young age. I can’t remember exactly; it was always there, I think”. And she was unwavering: on leaving Oxford, instead of heading for a golden-hello job, Menna started waitressing so she could put all her creative energy into writing. “It was hard. Really hard. For the first five years I don’t think I completed a chapter.”

Menna promised husband Artur - with whom she now has two children, Oscar and Raffy - she would “give it 10 years”. As the deadline approached, she threw caution to the wind and self-published her debut, Men, Money & Chocolate, a modern-day fable about breaking free, then proceeded to schlep boxes around the nation’s bookshops asking them to stock it (usually throwing in a parcel of homemade chocolate flapjacks as a sweetener).

The book caught a publisher’s attention and, in the decade since, Menna has published five magical realism novels which have sold across the world. Then came The Sisters Grimm, a bidding war (won by Transworld) and a launch at London’s iconic Hatchards bookshop. It’s already reprinted since the UK hardback came out in February, and the US edition has just launched, with Russian, German and Indian versions in the pipeline.

With a trilogy mooted, it’s a tribute both to Menna’s talent and cast-iron determination. Citing sixth form teachers who told her she had no aptitude for history or hope of an Oxford place - her Modern History MA says otherwise - Menna concedes: “I’ve always been quite bloody minded, especially if someone tells me I can’t do something.”

There’s one character which appears in all Menna’s books: Cambridge, her home city. “The gateways in Sisters were inspired by the gates at the Fitz. Cambridge is the most enchanting city, isn’t it? It’s not a stretch for me to think Everwhere is behind its gates.”

The Sisters Grimm is out now in hardback, published by Transworld and priced £14.99. The paperback comes out on October 15.

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