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 woman 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.