Riffing hard off the Arabian Nights story of the woman saving herself from the executioner’s axe by telling an endless series of stories that her husband can’t bring himself to miss, Isabel Greenberg’s The One Hundred Nights of Hero has a similarly universal appeal. The situation has changed, however, moving across to Greenberg’s own alternative world, called Early Earth, which is stuck in a puritanical, inquisition-era patriarchy. Women are subjugated and kept in their place through murder and threat. A woman who can read is a witch, and such emphasis is placed on female fidelity that husbands wager on whether their friends can seduce their wives, then kill the woman when a man too eager to win and too egotistical to lose forces himself on her.
One such wager is the background of the book, with a man given 100 nights to seduce his friend’s wife. However, thanks to the wife’s sharp-witted maid (Hero, who is also her lover), the man is captivated and tricked into failure. As with the Arabian Nights, we get the pleasure of both this story and some of Hero’s other tales, as they’re relayed by her to save her mistress from humiliation and death.
It sounds heavy-going but Greenberg has an extraordinary lightness of touch, piling humour and a wonderfully conversational tone into the narrative, which shines brightly and juxtaposes the darkness. Her illustration is similarly bustling with humour and character. While she doesn’t make light of the tragic lives of her heroines, there’s a gently rolling pathos, and the women are dignified and peaceful, despite the shadow of violence and deceit that permeates their existence.