Edited by Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab

Allen and Unwin (2011)

ISBN: 9781742374406

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

It’s lovely to see a project like this coming out of Australian publishing: the first of a two-volume series of anthologies of retold fairytales by some of our most beloved and important YA authors. Retelling fairytales is nothing new of course, but is a theme that benefits from revisitation, as each generation (and indeed, each writer) provides something new. I’m also very much enjoying what seems to be a current trend towards shorter anthologies – in this case only six stories per book which allows for longer stories, but demands a high level of quality for each. I really appreciated the substantial author’s notes on each story, which showed the process they took and introduces the fairytale they started with, for readers who might be unfamiliar with them.

The first story, “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” by Margo Lanagan, is the most powerful of the set, and indeed one of the most gutting and thought provoking of Lanagan’s recent work, which is saying something. Lanagan is no stranger to fairytale retellings, and in this instance has taken The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Anderson and fleshed it out into a story which puts us inside the mind of a soldier so damaged by his wartime experience that he finds himself lashing out in despicable ways. Lanagan is renowned for quite raw, sometimes painful-to-read stories, and this one is definitely among that group, containing themes which might be confronting or triggering for some readers – in particular, by putting us inside the mind of a rapist. But her work as ever is as deft as it is brutal, and I found myself wanting to reread it to figure out all the clever things that she was doing.

A hard act to follow! The next story, “Moth’s Tale,” by Isobelle Carmody was hard to get into at first, as I was still quite discombobulated by “Catastrophic Disruption”. Once I realised I was dealing with Rumplestiltskin, however, I went back and paid proper attention. It’s very common for modern writers when retelling fairytales to point out elements that were overlooked in the original version, especially the confusing cruel practices of “loved ones” upon the protagonist of the tale. In this case, Carmody has worked hard to make sense of the miller’s bizarre boast that his daughter could spin straw into gold, but she also casts a stern eye over every man in the story, all of whom display sociopathic tendencies. Why would a king ask a miller’s daughter to perform magic? Why would he marry her? Why would a little man go to such elaborate measures to steal a baby? While there is an ingenious solution/twist at the heart of this story, its reall success is the character of Moth, who is an intelligent and empathic heroine, and earns her own happy ending rather than stumbling across it.

I found Rosie Borella’s “Eternity” confrontational in many ways, largely because “the Snow Queen” is a story that has always completely alienated me (yes it’s about a girl who saves a boy, but the boy is so completely unworthy of her) and also because of the depictions of drug use and life on the streets. However, the worldbuilding is stunning – the effect of turning Sydney into an ice-bound land is jarring and fascinating – and Gerda is at heart a compelling heroine who deals with hard knocks in an admirable manner. I was less than convinced by the author’s attempts to render the ending a happy one, however – as with the original tale, the heroine deserved it and the hero didn’t.

Richard Harland’s “Heart of the Beast” seemed at first to be the most conventional retelling so far, and is one that treads well worn ground – really, with Robin McKinley’s two excellent novels, dare anyone else touch “Beauty and the Beast”? There were also a few uncomfortable parallels with the Disney movie which were jarring, however the original fairy tale also lent itself to them. However, the story itself took hold of me – I loved that the first half was very much framed as a horror story, and emphasised the grotesqueness of Belle’s situation as well as the horrendous behaviour of her father. While I wasn’t entirely convinced about her shift from fearing the Beast to being in love with him, I very much liked the new framing of who the Beast was, and how he had turned into this creature. The climax and resolution were marvellous, and felt like they belonged to a love story of equals, something rarely found in fairytales involving princes.

Margaret Mahy’s “Wolf Night” was a very evocative, stylised piece of writing, with a lyrical prose style and authentic teen voice. She has done what I would have found very hard to imagine – transformed the rather mawkish “Babes in the Wood” fairytale into a contemporary horror piece about urban decay. There’s a surrealism to it that is creepy and enticing, and gives a dark magic to what is otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative.

Martine Murray’s “One Window” was the story least to my taste – she has taken the fairy tale “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and developed it into a more elaborate story, but it felt to me as if there was less character to it than I would have expected – a strong, intense relationship with the protagonist is one of the things I expect and demand from YA, and I didn’t feel it here. I was also uncomfortable with the nature of the romance in the original fairytale (in which he falls in love from afar) and didn’t feel there was enough exploration of why this connection, like the relationship of Kai and Gerda in “Eternity,” was worthy of a happy ending.

Overall a very well produced and united collection of stories – I will certainly be looking out for the second volume, and interested to hear which authors (and which fairytales!) are to be covered.