Book Review: Dancing on Knives by Kate Forsyth

Whatever I was expecting when I picked up this novel, Dancing on Knives, it was not what Kate Forsyth delivered. Having said that, the story of Sara Sanchez, a young womaDancing on Knivesn tormented by loss, longing, and a hugely dysfunctional family dominated by her egotistical, passionate and bullying artist father, Augusto Sanchez, is a study in how the mind and body can become a far worse prison than four walls ever can. This is a novel about betrayal, choices, trust, anger, grief and healing, one that lingers long after completion.

Suffering from panic attacks and an anxiety disorder (that’s never named but heart-wrenchingly described), Sara tries to keep herself and what remains of her family together – her difficult father, surly older brother, the twins, and her resentful step-sister. Unable to leave the property that defines her life past and present, when her father disappears one stormy night, Sara is forced to confront not only her crippling fears, but the family history and secrets that have formed her, the present that defines her and the future that awaits her if she chooses.

The tale of Sara and the Sanchez family slowly unfolds, often told through vignettes of Sara’s childhood and recollections of the Sanchez family before she was born and the Spanish traditions her grandmother and father tried to keep alive, before being interrupted by events in the present as the search for her father and the wreckage his presence has left are revealed. Food, stories and rituals play a big role in this narrative, becoming anchoring points and it’s through these that Sara often escapes her bleak reality – these and the Tarot cards she sometimes reads as way of containing and preparing for what might happen next.

The mystery of Augusto and his fate, while it sets the action, mostly plays second fiddle to the mystery of Sara’s state of mind and her gradual, painful healing.

This is not a happy tale, but it is haunting and like all Forsyth’s works, beautifully written. For those anticipating another Bitter Greens, this book isn’t it and the metaphor of the little mermaid is used powerfully but in ways that “speak” (excuse the pun) to the underlying meanings of silence – it’s constraints, power and its punishing consequences. After finishing this, I was sad for days, angry at the forces within and without that can shape who we become and how our choices can be framed and limited by those others make, and though it left me frustrated and strangely dissatisfied, the beauty and truth of this tale is undeniable.

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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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