Monday, February 6, 2012

The Wicked Wood (Tales from the Tower) Volume 2, Edited by Nan McNab & Isobelle Carmody

First published in 2011 by Allen & Unwin

I was very impressed with Volume 1 of Tales from the Tower (The Forbidden Eye), and so have been looking forward to Volume 2: The Wicked Wood ever since. The fairytales in Volume 2 are not as well known, and some are just folk-tales rather than classic fairytale re-imaginings. There is still the same creativity, mix of dark beauty/terror and great writing from Australian authors – but I didn’t find it as ‘bewitching’ an experience as Volume 1. I don’t know if the fantastic concept had just worn off a little, or if the stories just weren’t as good. Maybe a bit of both.

The six rewritten fairytales in this book are The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids; Cinderella; The Little Mermaid; and the remaining three from slightly more obscure folk tales, including one based on a story from one of favourite mythologies, the Irish Tir-na-nog. To be honest, across the two collections I liked the stories more when they were based on the well-known fairytales, just because these tales are so familiar that it’s so interesting to see how these authors interpret and update them.

I was so delighted to see Victor Kelleher in this collection, rewriting an Irish folktale, Birthing. Practically every library trip I took as a teen, I would hunt down any of his books, and he has written one of my all time fav YA novels, Parkland. When I was thirteen years old, I had never read anything like the worlds he created, and the emotion in these stories was so often spot on. Birthing was an engaging story, although not one of my favourites in the collection, and I only knew the original story because I have quite a fondness for British and Irish folklore, and this is kind of the quintessential faerie story. Kelleher sets up the scene and the concept with lots of intrigue and peril, and the final showdown is very satisfying, if a little short. But I just love seeing Kelleher in this collection, and if you have a chance to unearth any of his older YA books I think it will definitely be worth your while.

Catherine Bateson’s Learning the Tango (The Little Mermaid) and Maureen McCarthy’s The Ugly Sisters (Cinderella) are the stories that come closest to their classic fairytale counterparts. I loved Learning the Tango, and think it just fantastic and also awesome of the publishers that Bateson wrote her version in free verse. It takes a bit to get into the style, but once there, it is very accessible and some beautiful insights can be found from the prince, the Little Mermaid, and her sisters. It has all the lovely sadness of the original but with a nice, sparky ending. Some of the lines I underlined just because they were so gorgeous. Loved it. The Ugly Sisters was great to hear from the perspective of the two sisters, and the mother, but I found them as characters just really horrible and couldn’t warm to the story. Even Cinders started to bug me at the end, although McCarthy did have a few great moments where she subtly let the father figure show a bit of backbone. And there was some great menacing action by the black birds in the backyard. But ultimately I found the birds the most enjoyable characters, and their watchful presence over the household the most exciting thing that happened.

I couldn’t really warm to Nan McNab’s Glutted, also based on a slightly obscure folktale. It made me feel rather queasy, and the ‘love interest’ character I found repulsive – I guess that’s a sign of writing well done, though, if the story can invoke such strong emotions. And I did like the ‘mother’ character. The style of it reminded me a bit of Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Goosle’ – it has that same abject feel to it.

Kate Thompson’s Glamour did not quite fit comfortably into the book as a whole. It was well-written, and had a lovely reflective quality, but it was also distinctly adult in flavour and felt like a bit of an outsider. Actually on the whole the stories in Volume 2 have a much more adult feel than in Volume 1. Which is fine but I feel like the audiences for the two different volumes are slightly different.

Cate Kennedy’s Seventy-two Derwents (Wolf and the Seven Little Kids) was just lovely. This is the story that gets it most right emotion-wise, and is a great example of how such a short and simple fairytale can be re-imagined and picked apart and built upon to create a whole new emotive meaning. The central character is gorgeous – I couldn’t help but wish for anything but a happy ending for her, and the relationship she has with her sister is a great example of how a great writer can show complexity and love in such a small amount of words. I found it really clever how Kennedy transferred the story across into the contemporary world. Probably my favourite story in Volume 2.

Once again, was interesting to see how the authors had interpreted the original stories in the ‘Afterwords’. And, unlike the first Volume, I did not have a problem with overly sentimental happy endings – the endings for these stories were more of the bittersweet kind – another favourite of mine.

On the whole I think publishing the Tales from the Tower concept was a brilliant idea, and it was really fantastic to have that kind of calibre of Australian writers in one collection. Some of the stories were hit and miss, and I do wish that all the stories had been based on classic fairytales, as I think it would give the collection a greater sense of unity. But still wonderful. And absolutely gorgeously designed too.

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