The One Hundred Nights of Hero
I urgently hope that Isabel Greenberg’s THE ONE HUNDRED NIGHTS OF HERO sets a precedent. It’s just such a cool premise: queered revision fairytale. I love it! The original Middle Eastern/South Asian “One Thousand and One Nights” featured a powerful, clever storyteller Scheherazade. Wronged by his wife’s infidelity, a Sasanian king marries virgin after virgin, deflowering her in the night and executing her in the morning to prevent further infidelity. Scheherazade is next in line, but tells him such an enchanting tale that he fails to deflower or execute her, so eager is he for the next interwoven story. This was said to continue for a thousand and one nights --- endings vary, but ultimately, she in some way saves herself through story.
That’s what Isabel Greenberg has chosen to adapt. In her version, in a fairytale-like landscape deeply resonant with our own, two substantially unappealing men strike a dangerous, disgusting bet. Manfred insists that women are filthy, unfaithful creatures. Jerome swears that his wife is chaste --- so chaste that she has even avoided consummating the marriage. Manfred wagers that while Jerome is away for 100 nights, he will seduce Jerome’s wife, Cherry. This is a sick, wicked bet, because if Cherry refuses, Manfred will certainly force her, then blame her. How can she avoid him for 100 nights?
"Greenberg’s gorgeous style of illustration propels and links the tales, creating an atmosphere of darkness and triumph.... Greenberg crafts the sort of tales I wish were shared, emphasizing the agony of expectation, the beauty of true freedom and its often near-impossibility."
This is the crux of Greenberg’s interpretation. Cherry has been avoiding her husband because she’s in love with someone else --- her maid, Hero. Hero saves Cherry by weaving tales for each of those hundred nights. Though Greenberg has cut down on the number of nights, she enhances the original text with richness in story and illustration. The stories Hero tells layer back and forth throughout each other, keeping readers on the edge of their seats just like Manfred, whose seduction is delayed by his ongoing fascination with the narrative. Hero speaks of creation myths and lovers, of jealousy and suffering. Her stories blend with fairytale and history. Greenberg’s gorgeous style of illustration propels and links the tales, creating an atmosphere of darkness and triumph. The stories are shot through with myth, pain and caution, the violence of male desire and the power of real love.
As Hero and Cherry defy convention, endeavoring to escape the trappings of heteronormativity, they bring to light many tales of kind women and men who sacrifice and fight for love. Greenberg crafts the sort of tales I wish were shared, emphasizing the agony of expectation, the beauty of true freedom and its often near-impossibility. These fables aren’t toothless, but bitingly prescient. Though Hero and Cherry’s gods and prisons differ from ours, the struggles they and their heroines face deliberately resonate powerfully today. The ultimate takeaway is that of the League of Secret Storytellers: women who are committed to sharing the truth, in all its beauty, violence and love.
I did wonder about the potentially appropriative nature of this frame. To me, a queer, feminist, prescient interpretation of Scheherazade seems entirely appropriate, but neither myself nor the author are Middle Eastern, and I don’t even have the authority to know what was lost in the adaptation. I think that’s worth mentioning.
In some places, I wanted more. I wanted a hundred tales, if not a thousand! I wanted happier endings, even though I think every story in this book is well-chosen and well-written. I wanted more of Hero and Cherry falling in love. I think, ultimately, all I really want is a sequel. And that might be what Greenberg was going for. Not that she’ll write one herself, necessarily (though I do hope so), but that her readers will come away burning with the desire to join the League of Secret Storytellers, to pass on the stories of women tragic and triumphant alike, and to fight for a world in which such stories don’t have to be secret anymore.
Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on December 9, 2016