Zel by Donna Jo Napoli (1998)
Updated: Jul 10
This is a beautifully written retelling of Rapunzel. Zel is a short novel with lean, sparse prose, written in the less usual present tense and told through three characters’ viewpoints. This combination of complex technique and sinewy storytelling makes for an elegant and powerful tale.
Zel is a girl on the cusp of adolescence, living with her mother in an isolated alm in the Swiss mountains. It’s a happy existence, and the relationship with her mother is close and loving, but Zel longs for more social connection. What Zel doesn’t yet know is that her beloved mother is not really her mother at all. ‘Mother’ is a woman who sold her soul to the devil to gain her heart’s desire: a daughter. And that daughter was taken from her real mother by witchcraft.
A rare visit to town for Zel results in an encounter with a handsome young nobleman. A romantic spark is ignited between them, and nothing will ever be the same again. When the witch discerns that Zel is moving away from the innocence and dependence of childhood towards another love, she determines to do what she believes is the only right thing: she must keep Zel hidden away, in a tower without a door, where no one will ever find her until Zel is ready to trade her own soul for a life with Mother.
Zel’s descent towards madness during her isolation is sensitively shown, and the corruption of the witch’s ‘love’ for Zel is made apparent. Love does not seek to control or exclude all others in jealousy. Real love does not take life and freedom, but gives it. These themes are beautifully shown through the story. True love does win the day, in fairytale fashion, and after many trials and trauma, Zel does gain the relationships and community she longs for. The ending doesn’t quite clarify what becomes of the witch, but her last act is one of mercy, and there is a hint that she may have found release and peace in having realised the real nature of love before her own death.
This is marketed as a children's novel, but I would consider it quite mature in its themes.