Book Review: The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine by Sandra Gullard

Recommended to me by a girlfriend with impeccable reading taste, I was still, for some reason, somewhat reluctant to read this book. I knew very little (or cared – I am ashamed tThe Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (Josephine Bonaparte, #1)o admit) about Josephine or Napoleon (apart from “not tonight, Josephine” – I don’t even know what the context for that is!) and felt there were too many other figures from history that I wanted to learn about and experience through fiction or non-fiction to invest in a three book series. Well… excuse me while I go and eat my words.

From the moment I picked up this book, I was hooked. Written in the first person (it’s presented as though it’s Josephine’s diary), it commences when Josephine is 14-years-old and then called Rose, the daughter of slightly impoverished landed gentry on the island of Martinique. Of Creole heritage, Rose has dreams and these are fuelled when a fortune teller informs her she will be a queen one day.

When her younger sister dies, Rose becomes a substitute bride and undergoes the long sea voyage to France to take up her position as a minor noblewoman as the wife of Alexandre de Beauharnais. But life as Alexandre’s wife is not what Rose expected and as she bears children and is given entrée into Parisian society, she also has a front seat to her husband’s infidelities and indifference and the French Revolution – the latter which unfolds swiftly as the Terror descends. The Ancien Regime is collapsing, allegiances shift daily, and Rose has to find a means to protect her children, her greater family and friends, and above all herself.

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, I couldn’t put this book down. Gullard spent ten years researching this trilogy (of which this is the first book) and it shows, but not in a didactic way. Martinique and the customs and culture of the indigenous and their French colonisers, and their differences to their France-based counterparts is wonderfully realised. As we see, smell and are inculcated into the island culture, so too, through Josephine’s naïve and fresh eyes, we see France and Paris. We enjoy the beauty, the sophistication, the fashion and habits, but also deplore the filth, poverty and later, blood and cruelty. Some events take place “off-stage” and those that don’t are given the personal touch through being viewed and oft-times experienced by Josephine or a close friend. The fear and concern, the drop in fortunes, the confusion as titles change, even days of the week and festivities are renamed and those once lauded as heroes of the revolution are killed as traitors is palpable.

Through all this, Josephine, as a woman, mother, “citoyen”, shines. Her care for others, her love for her children and theirs for her; the lengths she will go to in order that justice is served, are heart-wrenching and brave. As a reader, you are filled with wonder for this woman. It’s only towards the end of book that the ambitious Napoleon enters the story and I loved that he remains a peripheral character, even as he woos her, for this is Josephine’s tale and it is her voice we hear.

The footnotes that accompanied my kindle version were terrific and enhanced my reading pleasure. At first I thought they might encumber the story, but they don’t. They are like discovering a chocolate under the pillow as you open the reference, read and appreciate the way a fact has been woven into the narrative – seamlessly, always.

Gullard is a masterful storyteller who brings Josephine and the events in which she finds herself to life – better still, she engages the reader’s heart and head and in doing so creates an unforgettable interpretation of a remarkable woman and time.

For lovers of great fiction, historical novels interwoven with fact, love-stories and those that recapture women’s experiences and give them voice, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

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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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