This sumptuous, beautifully written and conceived novel is fundamentally a retelling of the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty – only it’s so much more as well. Forget what you think you know of the Disneyfied myth of the beautiful princess who, cursed at birth is rescued from certain death by an errant (fairy) godmother only to fall asleep when her finger is pricked by a spindle on her sixteenth birthday before she’s rescued by true love’s kiss decades later. This version, told by an elite servant, Elise, in the castle in which Princess Rose (also called Beauty) is born and raised, places the kernel of this story (the lovely but tragic princess) in a much larger context.
Told as a story within a story, the frame narrative introduces us to the elderly Elise, who listening to her grand-daughter recount the tale of Sleeping beauty, finds herself flung back into her own past and a story she’s kept locked away for decades. Compelled to tell her granddaughter the truth behind the legend and her role within it, Elise’s tale begins…
Commencing when Elise is a child, the reader follows the hardship, loss, dedication, hard work and some good fortune this bastard child from a poor farm experiences, all of which lead to her becoming lady-in-waiting to the queen of a small kingdom that could be anywhere in Europe around the time of the Renaissance.
The castle in which Elise works is filled with personalities and internal politics. Despite her efforts to remain remote and simply do her duty, she becomes caught up and draws positive and negative attention. From the vengeful but loving king, to the deeply sad queen whose desperation to have a child leads her to make poor choices, Elise finds herself front and centre of an unfolding personal and greater drama of desire, ambition, need, love and fear. Overseeing all of this is the king’s Aunt Millicent, a cruel, controlling woman whose greatest ambition, to rule the land, was thwarted a long time ago and which she’s never come to terms with. There’s also her sister, the love-lorn and quite fey Flora, who remains in a tower built especially for the two sisters when they were young.
Then there’s the other servants and various confidantes, knights, diplomats etc who either barely tolerate Elise or embrace her for the qualities they recognise in the fine woman she’s becoming.
Amidst war, revenge, sickness, love, lust, great joy and heartache, Elise’s story and that of the rulers of this land and the child finally born to them unfolds. Ever with an eye to detail, Blackwell constructs the castle and its surrounds, as well as the people who populate the building and lands so simply yet poetically and realistically they’re brought to life – and all through the eyes of Elise, one of the strongest and most loyal of the queen’s subjects, but who has her own secrets to bear.
A friend recommended this book to me and I do love a good fairytale retelling. This book exceeded my already high expectations by being so original in its approach and, indeed, what it does with a well-known and beloved narrative. Gone is the hocus-pocus to be replaced by an eerie sensibility, a place and time where chthonic magic, wild and untamed exists but is wielded with dangerous consequences. Replacing wands and wings with will and determination, the novel overturns not only the fairytale, but stereotypes and clichés to present a marvellous story about strong women, loving women, weak and wicked women and the men who either support or suborn them – often for their own purposes.
A wonderful novel that I found difficult to put down and which is still resonating days after I completed it.