Apr 8, 2012

Book Review–Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.
This is the first line of Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth’s marvellous retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale and it drew me in immediately.

Bitter Greens is a well woven tale that draws together the magic and darkness of the original Rapunzel with an equally enchanting and historically faithful account of the tale’s first author, the enigmatic Charlotte-rose de la Force.  If you thought women at the Court of the Sun King were pure decoration, think again.

Fairy tales for children?
If you have grown up on Disney fairy tales you could be forgiven for thinking perhaps, that a novel about a fairy tale would be for young adult readers.  That would be a mistake.  No doubt many a young adult reader would love it but Bitter Greens is mature in tone, and quite dark in places.  If you’re not comfortable with rape and violence toward women you might want to skip this one.
But the sorceress had smiled and bent down, taking Margherita’s hand in both of her own, soft white and perfumed.  She lifted Margherita’s hand to her mouth and bit off the tip of her left ring finger. Margherita screamed.
That being said it is a wonderful tale of redemption, courage and healing.  The return to the darker telling of the tale gives it more power and returns this fairy tale to one of its core purposes, an instructive tale that readers can draw strength and confidence from.

A three for one deal
We get three narratives in the novel.  That of Charlotte-rose, as she is imprisoned by the Sun King in a convent, forced to convert to Catholicism.  Charlotte-rose’ tale is told through revealing snippets of her past both scandalous and exciting.  We learn of Margherita, the Rapunzel of the piece, who is stolen from her parents and imprisoned by the sorceress - in the end a tale of great courage.  We also come to understand the sorceress and the terrible life events that shaped her warped outlook.

History given life
There is much to love about Bitter Greens.  As a student of history I am ashamed to say I knew nothing of Charlotte-rose.  Forsyth’s presentation of Charlotte-rose’ narrative and the history in which it is embedded makes me want to know more.  Forsyth has done her homework and made what is so often a dry list of facts, tantalisingly vibrant and real.

The issue with fairy tale retellings is, of course, that unless you have lived a particularly deprived childhood, you’ll have come across them, if not in little books of tales for children, in the ever pervasive Disney retellings.  Forsyth manages, though both structure and imagination, to keep the reader in suspense using our knowledge of later versions of the tale against us.  How many of you are expecting the prince to save her?

Plausible evil
Too often are the witches of our tales  evil in a dress, a caricature for the audience to boo and hiss at.  The sorceress, the venetian courtesan Selena Leonelli is a complex character, her actions are sadistic and evil, but also understandable and psychologically plausible. It’s almost impossible not to have sympathy for her in one instance and revile her in the next.

Something for everyone
Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate the research that Forsyth has put into the book.  Fairy tale aficionados will no doubt applaud her return to the original tale. The general reader will appreciate Forsyth’s skill in making you care for her characters and keep you on edge with both surprise and dread as you fear for their safety.

This book was provided to me by the author at no cost.

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.  Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.

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