Book Review: Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near

16120434Paperback, 432 pages
Published June 3rd 2013 by Random House Australia
Source: Personal copy

Allyse Near’s debut novel, Fairytales for Wilde Girls, is a rollicking ride where creativity and imagination hold the reins. The novel follows the story of Isola Wilde who is a child of the Nimue which means she has a sixth sense that allows her to see the world for what it truly is and what it contains. She has six brother-princes, three of whom three are female. They include the ghost of a dandy, Alejandro, a mandolin playing ghost, Grandfather Furlong, a bloodthirsty mermaid, Christobelle, a fairy, Rosekin, a Fury, Ruslana and a human male friend, James. The novel straddles the line between fantasy and reality, not quite magical realism though perhaps if categorization were necessary, I’d call it fantastical realism. Isola’s life is complicated by the presence of a dead girl in the Woods who for some reason takes offense at Isola’s still beating heart and seems determined to destroy the life Isola has created for herself. What follows is something like a dream or perhaps more fittingly a nightmare as Isola’s life rapidly unravels due to the malicious manipulations of the singing dead girl.

The structure of the novel plays against conventions. The chapters are short and the narrative is often interrupted with pithy interludes. Characters and settings are described such as you’d find in the manuscript of a play and text speak appears once or twice to give interesting texture to the prose. There are short fairytales excerpted from Isola’s favourite collection of fairytales by a fictional writer called Lileo Pardieu. The illustrations of the brother-princes by Courtney Brims is unexpected but all the more lovely for it. The language of the novel is, for the most part, rich and vibrant though the metaphors seem a bit forced at times.

“His face was a ghost story: graveyard eyes, cheekbones as sharp as urban legends, a sealed coffin mouth” (81).

The characters of the novel are all vibrant and colourful, especially those with supernatural leanings. Juxtaposed with their unearthly beauty, Edgar, the love interest and the boy next door, is most satisfyingly human and flawed. I liked that his physical shortcomings were mentioned without any weight to the observations and I liked the movement and gradual growth in the relationship between him and Isola. I do wish that more time had been spent on James, whose purpose in the novel is still a mystery to me, and Grape, who though a delightful character, does not get significant page time required for a more substantial exploration of the relationship she has with Isola. I did feel at times that because the cast was so big, the readers were not able to spend sufficient time with any of them except Isola on whom the novel focalizes.

Near uses fairytales as a vehicle to discourse on some of the darker aspects of real life: mental illness and depression. Isola’s mother suffers from depression and the novel presents an intimate look at how a family is affected by the illness. At the same time, the novel offers the reader a choice: to believe in the fantastic or to explain things in a way that does not include the supernatural. The pacing is a bit too slow at times and I found my attention wandering but the latter half  is far more gripping as most of the action is focused there.

The novel triumphs in bringing to life a story that a new generation of readers can adopt as their own fairytale.  Isola is a fey heroine, who has very little in common with the canonical fairytale princesses, and her internal struggles and conflicts successfully echo contemporary conflicts and internal struggles of many modern readers. The sumptuous language and the abundant imagination make this novel a success and mark Allyse Near as an author to look out for.