Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Wilful Eye (Tales from the Tower) Edited by Nan McNab & Isobelle Carmody

First published in 2011 by Allen & Unwin

I wanted this book from the moment I heard about it – the concept of it is just fantastic, it had some of my favourite Australian authors rewriting fairytales, and it was described as dark and lush and bewitching and sensuous. I couldn’t wait to read it. The Wilful Eye doesn’t disappoint.
The six rewritten fairytales in this book are The Tinderbox; Rumpelstiltskin; The Ice Queen; Beauty and the Beast; Babes in the Wood and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. There are six more to come in the next book – if they are as lovely and clever and provocative as these six, then readers are really in for a treat.
Some of the stories did work better than others. Some kept most of the original settings and twisted them around a bit, or added darker elements to them. Some were full on re-imaginings. Martine Murray’s One Window and Margaret Mahy’s Wolf Night were two that took the heart and basic plot of the original stories and crafted completely new worlds and characters out of them. I did not enjoy Mahy’s as much as the others – maybe it is because I am not as familiar and attached to Babes in the Wood as the other stories, but something just didn’t click into place for me with this one, and I thought references to the original were too self-referential. I think I also enjoyed her writing style the least; I felt it jumped over the place a little with a lot of background info included that seemed to have little to do with the story. Still, she manages to create some good atmosphere and a genuine fear for the characters in ‘the Woodlands’.
Murray’s One Window, based on The Steadfast Tin Solider, took a while to grow on me; in fact I didn’t really like it to begin with. But it ended up being my favourite. References to the original are so subtly and cleverly done and none of the original’s heart is lost. Such pithy insights into people and the way we see the world; and huge, complex bubbles of emotion so succinctly captured in a single sentence – this is what I enjoy about her novels and other works, and it is once again on display here. Murray has a real knack for capturing the human experience in a few words, especially the outsider’s experience, and by the end her retelling had thoroughly won me over.
Richard Harland’s Heart of the Beast (Beauty and the Beast) and Isobelle Carmody’s Moth’s Tale (Rumpelstiltskin) are the stories that stick the closest to their originals. I enjoyed Moth’s Tale up until the ending – I know it’s a fairytale, but I struggle when things end so neatly and everyone gets what they want. Actually, overall I was a bit iffy about the endings these stories had. I felt they were sometimes weak, letting down these fantastic stories that so far had packed such a brilliant, hefty punch. Sometimes it felt like the author knew they were nearing the end of the word limit and so hastily tied everything up; sometimes it was like they just lost interest in what the guts of the story had been about and the ideas petered out; and then sometimes it was just so typically ‘happily ever after’. And I know these are fairytales. They’re meant to end like that. I know. But when the subject material has been taken and twisted and sensualised and deepened, this kind of ending doesn’t quite sit right. That is my only complaint.
I loved Beauty’s taming of the Beast in Harland’s story. There is a real sense of menace and some beautiful writing as they bring out the best in each other. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite fairytales (my other is The Little Mermaid – to come in the next book) so I’m glad Harland’s update was very fine.
Rosie Borella’s Eternity (The Ice Queen) confused me at times – I think perhaps there was too much metaphor and meaning packed into it – but I still found it clever and the snow-dusted landscapes chillingly lovely. This story is infused with this sense of the underworld and the other, and it makes for compelling reading.
Margo Lanagan’s Catastrophic Disruption of the Head (The Tinderbox) was the story I was most looking forward to reading, and it has her usual beautiful, lilting prose, her darkness, her wonderful distorted sense of imagination. Her writing is like this wondrous, terrible wasteland, and stepping into the worlds she creates is always such a rewarding experience.
Points also for the Afterwords given by each author, explaining how and why they wrote the story. This was almost as interesting as the stories themselves.
So basically, The Wilful Eye is an awesome idea brilliantly executed. And it shines a welcome light on short stories, which I am always grateful for. Can’t wait for the next volume.


  1. Great review Samantha-Ellen!
    The concept does sound fantastic so it's heartening to read that the stories inside actually live up to it. The cover's beautiful as well. I'll be sure to check it out.

  2. Thank you, and make sure you do! I think everything about this book is a success.