Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire

How classic fairy tales were turned into a Dutch masterpiece

The old, good stories are capable of endless revisiting and revisionism. Gregory Maguire, who has made a speciality of them, is far too canny a writer to have only one set of tricks. The Oz sequence that started with Wicked is a straightforward validation and mitigation of the Wicked Witch of the West's personality and crimes. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by contrast, his strategy with the Cinderella story is to show the two stepsisters of the beautiful Clara as very different from each other, and Clara herself as a passive-aggressive young woman determined to make life difficult for all around her.

One of Maguire's most obvious concerns is with female solidarity. Here, Iris is caught between her paranoid mother (determined that neither she nor her daughters will starve), her own desire for painter's apprentice Caspar and his art, her tongue-tied and possibly imbecilic sister Ruth, and her genuine affection for Clara. It is Iris, rather than any imagined fairy, who chivvies Clara into going to a ball even though she herself has a wit and charm that might otherwise have held a prince's interest.

Clara never entirely returns this regard. She has only the neurosis of the gorgeous and damaged – but she shows what affection for Iris she can. This is a story with no especially happy endings, or condign punishments. It ends in reconciliations, of a sort, and wistfully sympathetic feelings.

Maguire sets his tale in Holland during the 17th-century tulip craze. Clara's father becomes hard up for specific reasons – and one of the book's several strengths is its vivid evocation of Dutch painting. Caspar's master is a credible minor figure in a world where Rembrandt is starting to make a name, and an older tradition of the grotesque and sacred is remembered in a comfortable bourgeois world that likes its well-lit interior scenes. All the central characters are, in one way or another, uncanny: loss of parents, raising from assumed death, rumoured status as changeling or witch.

This is a story of people who become the subjects of formulaic children's stories because it is the only way that ordinary folk around them can deal with their oddness and passion. Like all revisionist fantasy, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is to a large degree a meditation on story itself; on the needs it fills, the fractures it tries to heal.

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