Genre: YA Gothic Fairytale
There’s a dead girl in a birdcage in the woods. That’s not unusual. Isola Wilde sees a lot of things other people don’t. But when the girl appears at Isola’s window, her every word a threat, Isola needs help.
Her real-life friends—Grape, James and new boy Edgar—make her forget for a while. And her brother-princes—seemingly lifted from the pages of the French fairytales Isola idolises—will protect her with all the fierce love they possess.
It may not be enough.
Isola needs to uncover the truth behind the dead girl’s demise… before the ghost steals Isola’s last breath.
Alright, friends, full disclosure: my editor at Penguin Random House Australia sent me a copy of Fairytales for Wilde Girls (which is one of her titles, published in 2013), not to review, but because, having read my manuscript, Neverland, she thought it’d be exactly my kind of book. And she was right. I absolutely loved it! It’s dark and enchanting and playful and melancholy, and the light and heavy elements are perfectly balanced. It’s got fabulous characters, an enchanted forest, ghosts, fairies, mermaids, Furies, witches and references to Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath. Best of all, under all the strange, glittering magic there’s a real-life fairytale about a damsel in distress fighting her own monsters to win her freedom. And I just had to have a little fangirl moment about it here.
The story belongs to Isola Wilde, a seventeen-year-old punk-princess named for Oscar Wilde’s baby sister who died at age nine. Consequently, Near’s Isola feels she must live for the both of them. However, while her friends are preoccupied with the business of growing up, Isola remains trapped in a fairytale wonderland, unable to move beyond an unconfrontable something that happened at her tenth birthday party. She sees fairies in her garden and mermaids at the beach. She’s guarded by her six ‘brother-princes’: the ghosts of an opium eater and a blues musician, a real-life boy named James, a cheeky fairy, a formidable Fury and a one-eyed mermaid. And she spends her free time decorating a dying tree in her yard or else in her second-story bedroom, journalling on the walls, reading a beloved book of French fairytales and trying not to think about the fact that her mother has slipped into one of her worst depressive states yet.
I loved Isola, because she’s the kind of character who initially comes across as quirky and cool and utterly unselfconscious—the manic pixie dream girl trope—but as the story progresses, Near begins peeling back these surface layers to show that Isola’s seemingly whimsical eccentricities have dark, tangled roots, and that under all her make-believe she’s fighting a very real, very dangerous battle.
I also really enjoyed the way Isola’s interior landscape bleeds into the wider world. Fairytales for Wilde Girls contains so many fantastical elements that could be dismissed as figments of Isola’s overactive imagination—her real-world friends don’t see the things she does—but Near leaves the door open to the possibility that this enchanting, unseen world exists. And she plays with this ambiguity throughout the narrative, using it to unsettle and surprise her reader, until it becomes near impossible to tell what belongs in each world. It’s very Gothic.
However, for all its flights of whimsey, Fairytales for Wilde Girls also has a contemporary, almost grungy real-world feel about it. Isola and her friends are like any group of teenagers, with messy bedrooms, bad DIY hair dye jobs and unfinished homework assignments. Their town is small and ugly-ordinary, they come from complicated families and struggle in their friendships and relationships. There were plenty of moments when I felt like I was reading straight-down-the-line contemporary, coming-of-age YA. Until a razor-lipped Fury with a shadow cloak and sword shows up in the school bathroom, or Isola finds a dead girl stuffed into a birdcage hanging from a tree on her way to school, or a mermaid surfaces in the bathtub.
It’s pretty rare to come across a story that’s unlike anything I’ve previously read. However, while Fairytales for Wilde Girls borrows heavily from Gothic and fairytale tropes, and also contemporary, coming-of-age YA, it feels very fresh and turns a lot of those tropes on their head. It’s such a delight to read something so playful and bursting with imagination. The only stylistic comparison that comes to mind is Helen Oyeyemi, particularly White is For Witching (Picador, 2009), which is another one of my favourites. Although the stories themselves and the themes they explore are very different. And Oyeyemi’s work isn’t YA.
Fairytales for Wilde Girls is one heck of a debut that shows a keen mastery of storytelling (there are so many layers at work within this narrative) and I’m super keen to read more from Near.
Check out Fairytales for Wilde Girls on Goodreads.
Are you interested in writing YA? I’ve teamed up with Kill Your Darlings to produce ‘Introduction to Writing Young Adult Fiction’, an online writing workshop designed to equip aspiring YA writers with the skills and support to hone their craft and get to work.