Ok, I know this isn’t High Fantasy; its historical fantasy. But bear with me. I’m reviewing this book because:
a) Its written by Kate Forsyth, who began her career writing High Fantasy (I’m also a bit in awe of her and her writing).
b) It was nominated for a Aurealis Award this year, as one of the best Fantasy novels in Australia for 2012
c) It is friggin’ amazing!
Alright, so now that you’re convinced, here is my review.
To begin with, I wanted to share a story with you. Kate Forsyth is an amazing public speaker. She is heartfelt, funny and utterly engaging. And when she spoke about Bitter Greens, I knew I simply had to read it.
I am sure Kate won’t mind me sharing her story with you. When she was young, Kate was injured on the face by a dog. The dog’s tooth pierced her tear duct, damaging it beyond repair. Unable to clear debris from her eye, Kate suffered a series of serious eye infections, which left her hospitalised for long periods. During that time, locked up in a hospital room, all Kate could do was read. Is it any wonder that Kate chose Rapunzel, the story of a girl locked in a tower against her will, as her favourite Grimm story? Rapunzel’s tears cured the blindness of her lover, while Kate’s lack of a tear duct was possibly going to cause her to go blind. The irony was not lost on Kate.
Kate says this was a story she always wanted to write. It was not until she was researching the story of the woman who wrote the first Rapunzel tale to include the restoration of sight by Rapunzel that Kate found her tale. Not a fantasy, as she had always thought it would be, but a historical fantasy. Hence, Bitter Greens was born.
That is the lasting impression I am left with, every time I put this book down, and long after I have finished it. Simply exquisite.
This is a tale, within a tale, within a tale, as expertly woven as Rapunzel’s own fiery tresses (for Rapunzel is a red-head in this retelling). It begins with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, an impoverished French noblewoman who has been residing in the court of Louis XIV. Charlotte-Rose is being shipped off to a nunnery for her many scandals. The opening chapters, in which Charlotte-Rose is locked behind the nunnery walls, stripped of her valuables, humiliated and has her pens and paper destroyed, instantly wrenched at me. I felt such a strong sense of injustice for her position, as she is forced to endure hardship for no other reason than a failure to conform.
As she rails against the cloistered life, she is told the story of Petrosinella, the little girl taken from her family and locked away in a tower, and the tale of the witch who keeps her there. Charlotte-Rose also reflects on her past.
Set amidst the dramatic and alternating backdrops of King Louis’ court in France and 16th century Venice, this story hums with history, but from personal perspectives. These are dangerous and male-dominated worlds, where disease and poverty threatens, where a woman’s power is fleeting at best, where her virtue is her greatest prize and an agreeable marriage her best chance of success.
All of the women in this novel are prisoners in some way or other, whether it be physical restraint by imprisonment in tower or nunnery, or prisoners to convention, society and Feudal rule, or even prisoners to the passing of time and the need for money. But although imprisonment is the central motif of this novel, I think it is ultimately a novel about freedom, and what it means to be free. The central characters are all brave women, willing to risk everything to obtain that most precious ideal – freedom.
I shall not tell you if they find it. You shall have to read and find out.
Ten out of ten red-headed dragons for this beautiful novel.