Fairy tale bonanza

Fairy tales are not my first choice of reading matter, although I’m sure they were a huge influence on my mind as a child. So when I was sent a copy of South of the sun: Australian fairy tales for the 21st century, I didn’t suspect that I would soon be riveted by this magical book.

I am now halfway through the volume and still reading! Here, some of our best storytellers and illustrators engage with this genre in ways that are entertaining, funny, and relevant to our times. These are stories for adults and are about a lot more than fairies. Myths, legends and allegories are reimagined with a 21st-century spin and strong female characters, set in Australia. The stories unfold in the bush, between the dark towers of Docklands, or at the Botanical Gardens.

Favourite authors Carmel Bird and Cate Kennedy give an assured start to the book and lesser known ones take up the baton. Delightful tales by K.Z. Barton and Gabi Brown, involving a homeless man and a Melbourne tram, lead on to a hilarious new take on ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ by Lindy Mitchell-Nilsson, with sparkling dialogue and enough bureaucratic red tape to stand in the way of any good Aussie giant-killer.

Other stories hark back to ancient myths and cultures. Louisa John-Krol’s ‘Pomelina the Pomegranate Fairy’ is a luscious, lyrical tale, originating on the Silk Road in Persia and transferred to Bendigo. It is one of several tales here that took root at the Australian Fairy Tale Society, who published this anthology. The book itself is silky to the touch, edited with care, and illustrated magnificently.

I am now converted to the fairy tale in its modern, adult incarnation. What an excellent, light-hearted way to capture the essence of Australian life, to depict our trees and plants and creatures, to celebrate and satirise our society! I must read on…


Back in the day

I’m sure she would hate it, but I call Irish author Anne Enright ‘Aunty Anne’ behind her back. An aunt I can snuggle under the covers with and share delicious secrets and laugh at what we did ‘back in the day’, as she would say. The phrase smacks of nostalgia: not just any old day, but the day when life was better, or at least more vivid, than today. My friend Sylvia in Galway uses it whenever we reminisce about the 1970s, messing about in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Last week Readings Bookshop hosted a surprise event: our own Jane Sullivan was to interview Anne Enright on Zoom. A chance to catch up with Aunty and have a giggle. And for the author to promote her latest novel, Actress, as it lands on Australian bookshelves. No hard sell with her: she is closer to shooting herself in the foot, as she berates herself for writing the same book over again. I wouldn’t let that put you off.

Now I have a copy of Actress in my hand, I am delighted to find that same voice, the wry Dubliner with the rapier wit, on the page. I believe, after six acclaimed literary novels (The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize), she has loosened her literary stays and found a voice that is no less eloquent for all its cheeky familiarity.

In the interview with Jane Sullivan, she champions her fellow Irish authors Sally Rooney, Eimear McBride and Anna Burns, who have broken away from masculine tradition with a voice of their own. And yet, even-handedly and in spite of her fight against misogyny, she says ‘Irish masculinity can be a lyrical, poetic tradition, the nicest thing.’

Aunty Anne gives us the best of both worlds: the lyrical tradition of Irish literature and the outspoken female Irish voice of today. The key to her style is her love of language. For her, it is language that drives her, and leads her one way or the other in her storytelling. And there the magic lies.

1984 – are we there yet?

I remember holding my breath for the whole year in 1984, wondering if George Orwell’s dire predictions would come true. I looked around me in December, relieved to find that, at least on my side of the world in England, life was still rosy. I’d read the dystopian novel in the sixties (it was published in 1949), and now I was living in Thatcher’s Britain – not an ideal world, but still innocent enough, with no thought police and no TV programs named after Orwell’s Big Brother.

What did emerge within a few years, though, was the manipulative concept of political correctness, which may have had worthy aims of smoothing out inequality between the privileged and the under-privileged, but which succeeded in mangling the English language and producing gobbledygook. We ended up with ‘political speak’ and ‘business speak’, reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, designed to eliminate all nuance from language and diminish the power of thought.

When I went back to Orwell’s novel recently, I found it almost unbearable to read. The story is grim, the prose stark. But it is more than just depressing. Reading it thirty years on, in a different and more threatening world, the story fills me with dread.

The latest stage production of 1984 is playing at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 10 June. Check out my review: