A novel by Alyssa Near
With illustrations by Courtney Brimms
Fairytales for Wilde Girls, by contemporary Australian author Allyse Near, manages the impressive feat of sacrificing neither gritty reality nor whimsical fairytale in the world it weaves and the characters that inhabit it. A bubblegum gothic coming-of-age narrative that centres itself firmly in the mindspace of a teenage girl, it is uncompromising in both its flights of fancy and its descent into darkness.
Perhaps the most thoroughly derided archetype in modern literature, the teenage girl is often dismissed as shallow, superficial, appearance-based and feminine in all the wrong ways. Not so with Near. Isola, the protagonist, is given her due here as a character of such psychological complexity that the labyrinth of her mind is what frames the book itself. We are never quite sure how much of what we see is real, but no matter what we see, we know that all of it – the entire world of the book – originates from her.
The book is peppered with a cast both fantastical and real (sometimes both); from best friends to maybe-boyfriends, wood witches and dead girls, fairytale brothers and even a rabbit. Near manages the many fairytale archetypes with a playful blend of invocation and subversion, creating an effect of deliberate stylization that stays on just the right side of self-conscious to be incredibly effective. Noteworthily, both the princess and the witch, key feminine archetypes in the realm of fairy tales, are used in such a way that brings a breath of fresh air to both.
A trigger warning is definitely needed here: this book delves heavily into suicide. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the core preoccupation of the book is with death, and the ways people interact, flout, succumb or escape from it. It interrogates all the ways that someone can be dead or alive or both, in various combinations – and how, as painful as it might be, its best to leave the dead be. As the book culminates, it becomes increasingly apparent that its emotional core is grief and self-delusion. The actual coming-of-age is both literally and metaphorically letting go of a dead past, so that the future self might live.
I must admit I was particularly impressed with the slow unfolding of the mother-daughter relationship, which gradually approached such emotional messiness it could rival Freud. I have always felt that in contrast to the blow-up that is usually the father-son relationship, the mother-daughter relationship never quite receives the same loving attention-to-detail in all the ways it could go wrong. This book, which is not so much a headlong dive into the fraught relationship so much as it is a slow reveal of the trainwreck, is excellent at portraying a relationship full of affection which nonetheless has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It also touches on what is heavily implied to be postpartum depression.
A beautifully written novel, I’d recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in fairytales, troubled daughters and their equally troubled mothers, the complex interior lives of women, or simply a gripping, well-written story.