The Wilful Eye Review by Australian Book Review
Content of May 2011
It is the shared mythology of fairy tale that binds the six stories in The Wilful Eye. Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab gave twelve writers (six in this volume, including Carmody, six in a volume to follow, including McNab) a simple brief: explore a fairy tale through the short story form. The only rule: no two writers could choose the same tale. The first volume includes stories by Margo Lanagan (‘Catastrophic Disruption of the Head’), Carmody (‘Moth’s Tale’), Rosie Borella (‘Eternity’), Richard Harland (‘Heart of the Beast’), Margaret Mahy (‘Wolf Night’), and Martine Murray (‘One Window’). Each story is followed by a short ‘Afterword’ from its respective author, about which fairy tales were chosen and why, and how they were altered. These superfluous exegeses are by far the weakest links in the collection. Part of the enjoyment in reading the stories lies in determining which fairy tales they were based on; complete in themselves, these stories do not need further comment or explication.
Fairy tales are a neat fit for the Young Adult category. Traditionally, such stories were not intended exclusively for children; they were altered to make them ‘suitable’. In this collection, they are reinvigorated with the often gritty realism common in contemporary Young Adult fiction. Here it is employed to haul the original essences of the tales back to the surface so that readers, of all ages, will be drawn to the magic and the truth in each.
In her offering, Lanagan deals with the consequences of the heinous acts that fairy-tale ‘heroes’ often commit, and that are usually glossed over, in the pursuit of their goals. Murray deals with another type of hero in her crippled Soldier, but his innocence stands him apart from Lanagan’s narrator. Borella plays with an icy metaphor as her heroine takes to the streets to rescue her drug-addicted best friend. Mahy also invokes a cityscape, but hers is made wild and more dangerous by a reversion to the wild woods on which suburbia was built, and by the inclusion of a sinister stepfather. The stories of Carmody and Harland are closer to their source material in setting and tone, but no less rigorous in their examinations and explorations.
Each writer’s style is necessarily different, but the themes in the collection pull their stories together. Women, it is generally agreed, got short shrift in the Andersen and Brothers Grimm retellings of older tales (though there is a shining exception here), and daughters in particular had better watch out, but ultimately these are not feminist re-imaginings. Rather, the writers in The Wilful Eye imbue all of their characters, including the villains, with a deep sense of psychological realism, producing often tender, engaging, and insightful results. Unnamed soldiers and hideous beasts are given a voice, even if that voice is at times unsettling, and wolves are still wolves, however they disguise themselves.