Allen & Unwin, $32.95 pb, 362 pp
In the introduction to her Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990), Angela Carter considers the contrary nature of the fairy-tale form. Born of a lively oral tradition, fairy tales are not beholden to veracity, and Carter celebrates the complete lack of desire for verisimilitude in Andersen, Grimm and Perrault: ‘Once upon a time is both utterly precise and absolutely mysterious: there was a time and no time.’ Fairy tales do not beg the reader to suspend their disbelief, they baldly expect us to see the thing for what it is: a tale, a lie. It is all in the telling: which parts of the story the narrator wants to illuminate; which parts she wants to subvert or leave out completely. Carter writes of the modern preoccupation with individualising art, our cultural faith ‘in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original’, but fairy tales are not like that. They eschew permanent ownership and the responsibility that implies.
It requires enormous skill for a contemporary writer to draw upon this folk tradition without overprotecting the reader, or showering them in bombastic metaphoric language, or turning to give an ironic wink every few pages just to make sure they are in on the jape. Margo Lanagan understands the genre. Her control and her confidence with language and literary allusions are mesmerising.