Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is labelled as a retelling of Cinderella, set in 17th century Holland. And at a very superficial level, it is. There is a girl whose mother dies, whereupon her father remarries a woman with two daughters. The girl is unbelievably beautiful while her new stepsisters are ugly. She stays in the kitchen and does all the work around the house. And in the end they all go to a ball in a castle.

But reading it, it turns out that Cinderella is, at most, a vague inspiration. Despite describing various bizarre and curious events, the story really feels nothing like a fairy tale – it is more of a tragedy. It is raw and frank rather than beautiful, and at times quite cruel. There is no real happy ending. Beautiful people are not kinder than others; ugly stepsisters are not evil. Beauty does not lead to happiness. And there is no magic to solve all problems.

And unlike fairy tales, the focus of the book is not on events but the people. It is populated with a number of interesting characters, all of whom are far more complex than the fairy tale characters. Cinderella is not a poor victim but manipulative and whiny. The scheming stepmother is not villain but human, trying to provide for her children. Iris, the stepsister who is in the centre of the story, is no happier about getting Cinderella as a stepsister than Cinderella is about Iris.

All of the characters are very human, generally unsympathetic, and often surprisingly mean to each other. They are all blind (sometimes deliberately) to some aspects of their own lives and what is going on around them. Relationships between them are complex mixtures of love and hate, jealousy and joy. Though the book is less than 400 pages, all the main characters change and evolve: the girls grow up; adults around them mostly degrade.

Despite the mean characters and the unfortunate events that happen to them, the book itself is not unpleasant or depressing. It isn’t exactly fun, either, but it is definitely engrossing.

The one noticeable weakness of the book is its ending. The main story is wrapped in a meta-story, as if one of the sisters was remembering their childhood. This totally unnecessary technique leads to a very weak ending, where the sister simply summarizes what happened afterwards (instead of a “happily ever after”): “This is what happened to X. This is what happened to Y. This is what happened to Z.” It all feels very separate from the main story, as if it was glued on.

An unusual strength of the book is its cover. Well, “strength” is perhaps too strong a word… but it is a feature that I enjoyed. The cover depicts a complex scene with several things going on. Initially, it looks like this scene has nothing to do with anything that goes on in the book. Then something relatively unexpected happens in the book, which explains part of the cover. Having read this far in the book, I looked again at the cover, and more parts of it started to make some kind of sense. And then I couldn’t wait to find out if these things would actually happen, and when and how.

Altogether quite a readable and interesting book, quite different from most of what’s out there.

(Amazon US; Amazon UK.)