The Four Marys: A Quartet of Contemporary Folk Tales by Jean Rafferty

Book Review by Alan Bett | 05 Jun 2014
  • The Four Marys
Book title: The Four Marys: A Quartet of Contemporary Folk Tales
Author: Jean Rafferty

Mary, meaning bitter and rebellion, is a name that carries much baggage. We have Mary Magdalene and her namesake, the Mother of God – whores and virgins, those cruel binary stereotypes. Jean Rafferty shows all those vivid hues in between in this quartet of contemporary Scottish folk tales; each intrinsically womanly while avoiding delicate femininity.

The third-person prose of a skilled bedtime storyteller lures us into pitch black fables, with well-formed floral similes running in synch with their themes: ‘vulvular’ petals of lilies, and roses 'whose ruffled petals... so much resembled the inner crevices of their own bodies.' Regular acidic twists curdle these tart and bitter stories; they are gutsy and red-blooded – the blood of both birth and death – with cycle-of-life narratives comparable to George Mackay Brown's. ‘Do ‘a’ women want a wean?’ the author asks unflinchingly. Why the sea of fertility for some, yet a cruel, childless landscape for others? And how will obsession and longing force her characters to remedy this?

Tetralogies can be lopsided, as proved here. The first three stories are merely very good, the titular fourth tale is superb. In it, the plates of myth and legend move above and below each other over centuries. Our famous Mary Queen of Scots, with her consorts, links with a modern Mariana who attends a wonderfully realised Edinburgh New Town party of such stifling and grotesque pomposity that the famous decapitation sounds preferable. [Alan Bett]

Out 5 Jun, Published by Saraband, RRP £8.99