A black shadow over fantasy land

So, fairytales are all about bluebirds who help you get dressed in the morning and Gothic mini-mansions made out of biscuits, right? And forests peopled by princesses who - like the Gwyneth Paltrows of their lands - radiate such sweet, sweet joy over their rock-star unions that they make your teeth ache?

If so, the characters in Isobelle Carmody's latest collection of short stories certainly didn't get the memo. Because in Metro Winds, not only are many of them dyspeptic but they could also use the help of a good therapist.

Take the fairy king in The Wolf Prince, who frustrates his wife because he refuses to pick up his underpants and no longer bothers to conjure her morning cuppa.

Or the witch in The Girl Who Could See the Wind who complains about the ''childish'' types who assume that, being a witch, she must be wicked.

Why, you wonder, has Carmody taken a proverbial shredder to the usual fantasy archetypes and instead dragged her otherworldly characters through the dross of ordinary life?

''Because I think there's this perception that fantasy and fairytales don't have anything to say about life,'' says Carmody, one of Australia's most successful fantasy writers. ''And the thing is, fairytales were once a very gritty way for people to dialogue about aspects of life. Once upon a time, if you wanted to talk about the notion of child abandonment, of a mother not being a good mother, that's built into the mother who sends the babes into the woods and they use the bits of bread or stones to come home again. [These stories were] a way of looking at these possibilities that you didn't talk about.

''I don't believe in fairies floating around and I don't believe in telepathy but there are things I want to say that just simple real-life stories don't let me say.''

The key to why Carmody would turn to fairytales to explore real-life heartache lies with the author's childhood. Her upbringing has many of the markings of a tale by the Brothers Grimm.

As a young girl growing up in public housing in Geelong, Carmody says she was largely left to raise her seven younger brothers and sisters - and virtually unable to study - because her mother, who was uneducated and 17 when she had her, was reduced to working ''pretty horrible jobs'' at night (one in a lolly factory).

More literal parental abandonment figured, too. First was Carmody's father, who left the family without a word one day.

''He literally vanished,'' says the author. ''He was just overwhelmed with debt. He just left. We never mentioned it. Ever.'' (He returned after a year.)

Then, when she was 16, Carmody's mother cast her off after the two endured a period of ''fighting non-stop'' and the author ran away from home to stay with a beloved aunt.

''My mum saw that as an ultimate betrayal and so I could never go back. I did try, but … I couldn't. She couldn't allow it.'' (Her mother finally relented after three years.)

Familial betrayal, in many forms, features in Metro Winds. There is the fairy king who leaves his wife and child (who might suffer from a family curse that will turn him into a wolf). Not to mention the piece about the fairy princess who must choose between reuniting with her sister or saving an enchanted land.

So, yes, says Carmody, she has always written fantasy books (she started at 14, with the first book in her acclaimed post-apocalyptic Obernewtyn Chronicles series, about a young girl with mental powers) partly as a means to traverse ''the gulf'' of misunderstanding between her and various family members.

''Isn't that what writing is about? The constant attempt to understand the world? My friends always say that when they have a life crisis, my advice has always been, 'Why don't you write about it?' They laugh at me [but] I do think it's the answer to everything … you have to put yourself in other people's shoes to understand the other character.''

Indeed, although Carmody doesn't believe in magic, her own writing has managed to conjure one particular happy ending that, to this day, ''baffles'' her. ''I wrote a story about my mother and I; about [the] empowerment that I had discovered by saying no,'' she says.

''She never learnt to say no to anything [and] I saw her as weak and oversexed. I gave it to my mum to read and I was really nervous. I would've been humiliated by that description. And I am still baffled to this day [because] she hugged me with tears in her eyes and said, 'You really understood.'''

Metro Winds by Isobelle Carmody is published by Allen & Unwin, $24.99.

Isobelle Carmody is a guest at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, August 3-5. For the full program, see byronbaywritersfestival.com.au.

The story A black shadow over fantasy land first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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