The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

I finished The Beast’s Garden, the latest novel by one of my all-time favourite authors, Australian writer, Kate Forsyth, a while ago and found myself so deeply affected and moved by the story that I bided my time before reviewing it. I had extreme visceral responses to what’s ostensibly a love story set against the horrendous backdrop of Nazi Germany.

23702432The Beast’s Garden explores the lead up to World War Two: the targeting of the Jews, the pogroms, the “Final Solution”, as well as the resistance movement and the general attitudes and experiences of everyday Germans to the injustice, horror and fear as their leaders declared war against the world. Set between the years 1938-1943 and beyond, the book is very much located in Berlin, the epi-centre of the Nazi regime and tells of the young and beautiful Ava, a woman with the voice of an angel, and how she attracts the attention of a handsome and very Aryan Nazi officer, Leo.

As the book opens, the persecution of the Jews is on the rise, and Ava’s close friends, the Fiedlers, especially their children, homosexual Rupert and his sister, Jutta – are subjected to incredible hardship, particularly Rupert, through whom we experience the utter desolation and cruelty of Buchenwald. Concomitant with this is the ascent of the Nazi party and the officers whose names were to become part of global history and stark reminders of humans’ capacity for cruelty – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, etc. As the Fiedlers descend into poverty and become increasingly marginalised and disempowered, Ava’s star, as a singer of talent, is on the rise and yet, she resists what is being offered to her, aware of the injustices being meted out around her and feeling powerless to make a difference… that is, until she meets a group of courageous people.

What makes this book so unique in terms of story, apart from setting a passionate love story against such a dire and harrowing backdrop (which made it richer and deeper – out of great ugliness, beauty and love still rise and shine), is the fact it focuses on both ordinary everyday German people and the hardship they also experienced, their revulsion towards what was happening to the Jews and their efforts (often at the risk of their own lives and that of their families) to extend help and alleviate suffering and a specific wing of the German military – the intelligence services and the officers serving within it. While there were those who revelled in the downfall of a people they came to blame for all their social ills, there were so many other brave souls – outside and within the machinery of war – many of whom died for their selfless efforts. Forsyth is at pains to acknowledge these people, her exhaustive research paying homage to the risks they took and their humanity in the face of such danger and suffering.

Peppered with real figures and events (some of which are obscure in terms of familiar history, but oh so powerful), it’s a huge credit to Forsyth that the book is never didactic. It’s also testimony to Forsyth’s beautiful prose, the way her sentences flow and gather momentum, ironically building a crumbling world as she describes the beauty of a snow-covered Strasse, the brutality of the commandant’s wife at Buchenwald, and Rupert’s attempts to inscribe meaning upon his bleak existence. Her words grab you by the throat and heart and don’t let you go.

The overall narrative is loosely based on the old Grimm tale of the “Singing Springing Lark” which has been retold in various renditions as “Beauty and the Beast”. This poignant, traumatic and yet soul-stirring book is far more than a retelling of a famous fairy-tale. It’s a record of a time we should never forget – of our ability to transcend evil, through love, kindness, and connection but also of the darkness that lurks inside some people and how sometimes, we allow that to blot out the light and in doing so, we all suffer.

In the spirit of never forgetting, I feel I should also contextualise the reason for my intense response to this book. Of German-Jewish descent, I lost almost all my family to the Holocaust – Mendelssohn was our family name and, yes, we’re related to the composer, Felix (whose music Hitler banned). My great-grandfather (who was interred in Buchenwald and later died, alongside his wife, my great-grandmother, Ilse, in Tereisenstadt), also being a Felix. It was always driven home to me, by my grandmother, who escaped to Israel in her late teens/early twenties before coming to Australia, that her parents and family were first and foremost German. They were not even practising Jews and so were shocked and in total disbelief at what happened to them, their neighbours and extended family – how their birthright as Jews was turned against them in such profound and evil ways – their shared German history and undeniable loyalty to their country counting for nothing.

With every page, I felt I wasn’t just stepping into a version of history, but into personal history. It was a hard but worthwhile journey in so many ways. I thank Kate for that.

This is a wonderful addition to Forsyth’s growing body of work – from her simply addictive and clever fantasy books to her extraordinary works of historical fiction – all of which rate among my much-loved books.

Though I found myself alternately reeling, crying, sighing, having to put the book down and walk away; though memories of my own family and the stories I’d been told resurfaced and bubbled like a cauldron, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of history, great writing, and tightly plotted and executed stories that remain with you days and weeks afterwards. Simply superb.

 

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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

I’ve taken a bit of time between reading and reviewing this book, partly because I wanted to absorb the dark beauty of this stark, moving and occasionally horrifying tale, and partly because I’d no choice. I was rendered not just speechless by this marvellous novel but, for a time, wordless too as I sought ways to describe the richness of Forsyth’s work, the wonderful layers that make up the tale of Dortchen Wild, a gregarious young girl who grows up in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel during the Napoleonic Wars, living across a narrow lane from the then unknown Brothers’ Grimm. The beauty of the characters, the intimacy, joy and awfulness of the settings as well as the research and direct and subtle references to the forbidding stories the Grimm brothers themselves collected and retold, initially evaded me. It’s only now I can write about this amazing book. I was stunned by what Forsyth has done and urge anyone who loves the history of fairytales, history itself as well as a wonderful, page-turning novel about love, sacrifice, loss, family and the ties that cruelly and gently bind, to seek this one out at once!

Told from Dortchen’s point of view, the novel spans many years and many tribulations – poverty, war, and separation. The reader is given insight into the rise, and fall of the Wild and Grimm families’ fortunes as well as that of the rather stern ruler of Hessen-Kassell who is later replaced by a hedonistic relative of Napoleon.

The Wild GirlJakob and Williem Grimm are scholars who decide to collect what are fundamentally “old wives” and children’s tales for publication. Obsessed with preserving what’s a part of their country’s culture and past, they search for interesting variations and folk to relay the stories which they painstakingly record. Enter Dortchen, by now a teenager and a very able and imaginative crafter and re-teller of the old tales. It’s as a storyteller that Williem, a handsome if somewhat unhealthy figure, finally views his neighbour and little sister, Lotte’s playmate, Dortchen, through different eyes, seeing her for the beautiful young woman she’s become.

Dortchen’s growth into womanhood is a wondrous and painful awakening into beauty, sexuality, responsibility and reality, the latter from which her friendship and passionate feelings for Williem Grimm and the stories that surround her have occasionally allowed her to escape. But reality catches Dortchen all too quickly and bleakly. Forbidden by her stern father from being courted by the impoverished Williem, Dortchen tries to accept what fate offers; but as a girl who loves stories, she also desires a different outcome. Alas, as she and Williem shift into different social circles and circumstances and people become obstacles that grow insurmountable, control of her destiny seems like something that belongs in one of Williem’s fairytales.

I don’t want to ruin the story for those who’ve not yet had the chance, but be warned, as I said above, this novel does not steer away from dealing directly with the darkest aspects of human nature – something which fairy and folk tales have always confronted – often (though not always) through allegory and metaphor. Whereas the Grimm’s were forced to moderate their collected tales for the market, here Forsyth let’s the human capacity for evil loose. Nightmares come to life in this book and it’s testimony to Forsyth’s skill and sensitivity towards her threatening subject matter that she deals with it unflinchingly and with rawness; it takes your breath away. I found myself dwelling on this part of the book and my emotions were thrown into a tumult. It may be because of personal history, but I also feel it’s because readers are able to empathise with Dortchen and the cruelty and paternal tyranny that’s inflicted upon her. It’s utterly shocking. And that’s before I discuss the casualties of war – not only those who lose their lives because of a game of politics thrones and power – but those who survive and simply endure its abuse and horror.

Against this darkness, however, a light shines in the form of love – that between siblings, friends and soul mates. No-one expresses yearning quite like Forsyth. She did it so beautifully in her first book, the wonderful The Witches of Eileann, she does it again in the sumptuous Bitter Greens but it’s here, in The Wild Girl, that it culminates into a palpable ache that reaches beyond the pages and into the reader’s soul.

Forsyth has undergone a great deal of research to write this book and come to some original and compelling conclusions about the tales and their tellers as well. The novel is peppered with some of the better and less known of the Grimm collection, so we’re given stories within stories and can draw our own comparison between the rich imaginative world of the women who pass them to the Grimms and Dortchen’s life as well.

Original, compelling, exquisitely written, this is a novel of epic and passionate proportions that offers readers so much and then even more. A book ostensibly about story-telling it’s also by a story-teller par excellence. I really think Forsyth is one of the finest writers of this generation and her work deserves the widest of audiences. She clearly takes so much pleasure and pride in what she does – but better still, she offers it in abundance as well.

Cannot recommend highly enough.

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Book Review: Cinder, Marissa Meyers

Talk about judging a book by its cover! While searching for a completely different book, I found Cinder, book one of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer and was intrigued by the stunning cover – it’s one that warrants closer examination and functions beautifully as a metaphor for the entire story. The title grabbed me as well as I adore retellings of the old tales (if they’re done well) and “Cinderella” (the Grimm and earlier versions) was always a particular favourite.

Set in the city if New Beijing, in a future where World War Four happened over a hundred years earlier creating new geo-political allegiances and countries, the Moon is not only settleCinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)d but is populated by a hostile race of “Lunars” who utilise “magic” (which is rationalised scientifically) as a form of control, a strange plague is decimating the people of the city, this a science fiction novel par excellence that dives straight into the story and lets the world building occur organically, within the telling. Cinder, the main characters is not only a cyborg, but a gifted mechanic who works in a crowded bustling market where she is all but ignored by the other retailers, but not customers who appreciate her talents. But it’s when one particular customer enters her premises, that her life changes…

Following the fundamental tropes of the original tale from which it draws, and paying homage to Anime at the same time, Meyer’s book nonetheless manages to offer something unique. While Cinder is an orphan who was adopted at the age of eleven and lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters, there’s a prince and a ball, that’s where the similarity really ends (bar a couple of additional bits, but I don’t want to spoil the story). Cinder is a loyal and courageous young woman whose self-esteem has been crushed but not broken by her step-mother. Her talent as a mechanic allows her a level of freedom and access to others, as does her friendship with and ability to repair robots and her own mechanical limbs.

Aware she is a cyborg and that they’re regarded as inhuman and less than second-rate citizens, Cinder harbours no ill-will, only a painful awareness of her lack of worth which translates into an acceptance of sometimes harsh and unfair penalties.

When the dreaded plague impacts upon Cinder and those she loves, and the hostile Lunar Queen descends to earth with an offer she won’t allow to be refused, Cinder is forced to confront not only her past, but her destiny as well.

Tight prose, believable characters, a once magical plot grounded in science and futuristic tropes, this is a terrific read that should tick all the boxes for lovers of science fiction, romance, recast fairytales and just well written imaginative novels. It also explores friendship, xenophobia, disease and the terrible toll i! takes, loss, refusing to be victim and staying true to oneself.

The ending sets up the next book in the series reasonably well, though also obviously if not clumsily (when you read it, you’ll see what I mean – the action/motivation doesn’t quite ring true – I don’t see why what’s suggested has to wait). Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the next novel in this series very much and will be interested to see how Meyers, who used the original tale so well thus far takes this beloved character and plot into new territory.

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