lip lit: fairytales for wilde girls
Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls is a refreshingly original debut. Though clearly inspired by a range of fairytales, ghost stories, literary works and poems, Near uses her affection for these genres to develop an entirely new fantasy world, one where she can explore the pitfalls of young adulthood.
The novel follows Isola Wilde, a quirky heroine with Skittle-coloured hair who lives in a fairytale world no one else can see. Endangered unicorns, faeries and zombie rabbits roam the woods around her house, while seven loyal brother-princes protect her from the dangers of her daily life.
This secret realm affects her real-world relationships with her best friend Grape and her new crush Edgar. Girls at her conservative private school think she has mental issues like her mother, and her father tells her time and again she is too old for imaginary friends.
The boundary between her two worlds becomes even harder to negotiate when she finds a dead girl swinging from a birdcage in the woods. The girl’s angry ghost holds a grudge that Isola doesn’t understand. When her brother-princes start disappearing, one by one, Isola has to uncover the truth behind the girl’s death before this ghost consumes her life completely.
Fairytales for Wilde Girls is not a subversive take on an existing fable, but a surreal and gothic new story written in the tradition of a classic fairytale, similar to the short stories and novels of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. Modern touches like Isola’s fondness for The Smiths and her Emily the Strange sensibility blend well with literary allusions to Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, while the prose is rich with romantic imagery. Isola’s mother’s tears are the ‘overtures before a musical’ and Edgar’s face is a ‘ghost story: graveyard eyes, cheekbones as sharp as urban legends, a sealed-coffin mouth.’ If Tim Burton ever penned a novel, it would be something like this.
The structure is slightly unusual, but not off-putting. Sharp chapters are broken up by play-like character introductions, tales from a French book of fairytales that Isola adores, and beautiful illustrations. All add to the impression that you’re reading a lost collection of classic fairytales. The omniscient narration, which perfectly suits the genre, can be distancing at times.
Near acknowledges the darkness present in historical fairytales by constructing disturbing origin stories for Isola’s brother-princes. Her gruesome imagery takes us closer to a Brothers Grimm universe than a sanitised Disney one, though the novel contains enough whimsy to appeal to fans of the latter. She also juxtaposes these fantasy elements with Isola’s real world problems, particularly her mother’s manic depression and its affect on Isola’s mental health. Isola’s grasp on reality is often questioned by her family and friends, but Near refuses to compromise the enthralling nature of her universe by confirming things one way or the other. As a result, her fantastical world can be interpreted as an allegory for mental illness or as a supernatural world only Isola is privy to. Regardless, Isola must take control of her own destiny without the help of her brother-princes, a clear effort to repurpose the ‘damsel in distress’ story.
The twist ending delivers the most startling emotional punch. Near’s foreshadowing is so subtle that the truth ends up being a genuine surprise, but it is faithful to the rest of the story, and it certainly makes sense that Isola’s tale has a bittersweet conclusion.
Fairytales for Wilde Girls is a complex novel that should be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for beautiful literature. The fantasy elements are by no means alienating, as Near is talented and insightful enough to use her fairytales as a metaphor for deeper issues; grief, isolation and mental illness.