Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

If any confirmation was needed that Kate Forsyth is one of the finest writers working today, who not only brings history alive with her words, gives voice to those often neglected or silenced and readers pause to ponder, then surely, her latest novel, Beauty in Thorns, is it.

Set in the era when the Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of beauty, art, poetry and breaking all manner of social conventions and boundaries reigned, this book explores the lives and loves of some of the major influencers of the time – primarily Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris – only, it’s told from the point of view of the amazing women who loved, needed, and were alternately a source of inspiration for, as well as exploited and hurt by these men.

The reader is introduced to Lizzie Siddal, a young woman from an impoverished family who becomes a model for the passionate and avant-garde Rossetti, falling for not just his eccentricity and talent, but how he makes her feel – beautiful, able to break the bonds that bind her to a particular life and explore her own creativity, despite what society and the class into which she is born dictates her role should be.

Artistic in her own right, Lizzie is never quite able to soar in the way the men who love and use her do. Her story is both heart-wrenching and familiar and the way in which Forsyth delves into the psychology under-pinning Lizzie’s choices – both poor and wise – is riveting and persuasive.

Likewise, we meet tall, striking Janey Burden. Illiterate, poverty-stricken and burdened like her name with a family destined never to rise above their grim conditions, her meeting with William Morris and the rest of the group is transformative. Perceiving Janey as both beautiful and able, the Pre-Raphaelites engender in Janey a desire to rise above her birth and circumstances and embrace what they offer as well as the means to do so. Becoming literate, discovering her hidden talents, what’s also awakened in Janey is a love for who she is when she views herself through others’ eyes, only those are not always her husband’s.

Experiencing and causing heart-ache, Janey is a revelation – someone who embraces what the Pre-Raphaelites represent in terms of defying tradition and conventions, but she’s also someone who, as a woman, is also damaged by them.

The reader also comes to understand and appreciate Georgie Macdonald, the long-suffering wife of Ned Burne-Jones. Like Lizzie, Georgie makes great sacrifices to ensure her husband’s career soars, repressing her own creative desires and ensuring her husband’s needs are met, no matter the heart-wrenching cost.

When Ned finally paints his daughter as the lovely, doomed Briar Rose, a young woman who is awakened to love, the metaphor which frames the entire book reaches its epiphany.

While the title of the novel gestures to the fabulous quartet of paintings inspired by the Sleeping Beauty tale, and created by Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the fairy-tale itself, the way Forsyth imagines how the women lived and encountered the men and how these encounters changed everyone irrevocably, is anything but fairy-tale-esque or romantic.

All the women portrayed are, essentially, sleeping beauties trapped by thorns. “Asleep” to their potential because that’s what culture and the epoch demands of their sex, the thorns are sometimes the men, but mostly they’re the pain and tribulations, the strangling limitations and reductive choices that life metes out. Whether it be their class, education or lack thereof, the opportunities denied to them and how the accident of their sex and thus gender, imposes restrictions, snags them early in life, they are imprisoned in a variety of plant-bound castles from which there is no escape. Not even the “princes” of the Pre-Raphaelites, with all their wild ideas and cherished notions of a different society can (or, arguably, want to) free these women. They are all bound by rules. Admittedly, the men do enable these women a glimmer of life and hope in varying degrees, especially in allowing them to recognise their own inner and outer beauty and using them as aspirational and allegorical figures in their works, but in the end, the liberties granted to them as figures in widely appreciated poetry and art, as muses to the men, is as illusory as the Arcadian and mythic settings the poems and paintings evoke.

Sadly, no-one can really “awaken” these beauties in the manner they deserve or want.

While the characters are wonderfully realised, so too is the era. Victorian England, the social and industrial changes, the politics, the varying landscapes through which the characters move, the food they eat, clothes they wear, are all gorgeously rendered. You can see the flowers dotting gardens, smell the soot-tainted air, feel the clammy fingers of fog-bounds streets and the claustrophobic rooms of different houses. Other well-known figures that strode through history such as George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling also make an appearance, adding even more authenticity to the novel and a sense of the enormous creative contribution yet to be unleashed by this period and which we still enjoy to this day.

Beautifully, hauntingly written, often languorous and also melancholy, this book lingered in my mind and heart for months after. It still does. I think that’s why I’ve taken so long to review it. I found I cannot stop thinking about it. If that’s not indicative that a reader is in the hands of a masterful story teller, I don’t know what is.

Upon travelling to the UK in the wake of finishing, I was continuously drawn to the works of the pre-Raphaelites which live on in so many different ways. I even brought some William Morris cushion covers, based on prints he designed. But pondering this novel more, I wish it was the work of the women who also occupied spaces in my home – or maybe not. For, what I’ve realised Kate Forsyth has given these women is a space in my head and in my heart and for that, I am very grateful.

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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: Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens

Recuperating from pretty awful surgery has given me the chance to indulge in my absolute favourite past-time: reading. I read a great deal anyhow, particularly when researching my novels and for my newspaper columns, but for sheer joy doesn’t happen often enough. One of the upsides of being unwell is that it’s given me an excuse. Over the next few days, I will try and post reviews of some of the wonderful novels I have immersed myself in, starting with Kate Forsyth’s magnificent work, Bitter Greens.

I confess I’m a long time fan of Kate Forsyth’s work ever since I read the The Witches of Eileanan and sent my first email ever to an author to express my appreciation. I know the high standards Kate sets and that which her readers have come to expect and what a marvellous storyteller she is, even so, this did not prepare me for the experience of reading Bitter Greens. Quite simply, this is an outstanding, mesmerizing book that is one of the finest works of historical fiction I have read.

Weaving the tale of the infamous French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force with the tale of Rapunzel, Forsyth delivers a luscious, sensual and incredibly moving tale of love, betrayal, politics, religion, female friendship, desire and gender against the backdrop of Renaissance France and the court of the Sun-King Loius XIV and the heady life of a courtesan in Sixteenth Century Venice.

Moving from Charlotte-Rose’s story to the apparently fictitious one of Rapunzel, known in this book by two different names, and yet again to another major female character (in at least Rapunzel or Margherita’s tale), the bella strega (beautiful witch) and courtesan, Selena Leonelli, the reader is admitted into three what seem at first very different female lives, cultures and times. Only, as their stories develop and unfold, the similarities far outweigh the differences. From imprisonment created by sex and gender roles, to that enforced by faith and parental rules, to the laws laid down by king and country, it becomes evident that Rapunzel’s tower is not worst kind of entrapment a women can endure. Cleverly using the tower as a metaphor for the different ties that cruelly and gently bind, as well as the redemptive power of story-telling, Forsyth has crafted a beautiful and powerful story of three strong women that lingers in the imagination long after you put it down.

Written as the creative part of a current Doctorate, it’s clear that Forsyth has done her research. Anyone who has plunged into the history of fairytales understands that it was the Brothers’ Grimm whom we have to thank and curse for many of the current and highly sanitized versions of centuries old and told folk tales that frequent contemporary culture – Grimm and Disney. Forsyth has eschewed these and returned to earlier and darker source material and in doing so, given the novel a veracity and depth that is simply breathtaking. The detail of French court life, of the nunnery, and the way she brings Venice of that time to life is deftly done, never detracting from the plot of character development. In the acknowledgments you read about the translations Forsyth commissioned and the trips she took as research for her novel. They were well worth it and as someone who has both researched and taught the history and signifance of fairytales and myths at university, I would love to read her thesis when it’s complete.

Overall, I thought this a simply amazing book that once again left me in awe of this woman’s formidable talent and grateful that she (and I!) live in times where women can write their tabulations and share them. A tour de force indeed!

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