Last year I began to feel as though I was inhabiting a literary desert. Of the many books I read, nothing grabbed me enough to warrant recommendation. I wanted something to restore my faith in the power of stories. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth was that book.
‘Rapunzel’ is one of favourite fairy tales. I have encountered so many versions of it that I thought I had seen everything, until I picked this up. The tagline says it all: ‘You think you know the story’. Well, think again. Even the most avid folklorists could not predict the plot twists and beautiful, extra details given here. Kate has taken the classic tale and made it her own, fleshed it out, and given it new meaning. It’s so much more than just a girl locked in a tower, it’s about redemption, love in its many forms, and the acutely human fear of passing time which all of us can relate to. A beautifully woven three-strand narrative follows Rapunzel, the witch, and one of the real-life tellers of the tale, Charlotte-Rose de Caumount de la Force, making it informative as well as fantastical.
It is one of the great mysteries of literature, how Charlotte-Rose came to know Giambattista Basile’s tale ‘Petrosinella,’ published many years before she wrote her own version entitled ‘Persinette.’ Kate offers a plausible explanation for this in the form of a nun at the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie, where Charlotte-Rose was sent after being exiled from the court of Versailles by King Louis XIV. Readers discover the stories of the girl in the tower and the witch who put her there at the same pace as Charlotte-Rose, creating scandalous cliffhangers that make you keep reading.
The main characters are unquestionably alive throughout, despite each of their stories vastly differing from one another. It is easy to identify with them all, and the triple narrative is not at all confusing. In particular the witch, named Selena Leonelli, comes across strongly. Whilst not presented as the most desirable person, her motives are clear and I found myself sympathising with and hating her at the same time. Few writers can create that contrast effectively, and Kate is definitely one of them. Selena’s ambiguous personality makes her exciting and controversial; a great discussion point for book clubs.
Whilst it is somewhat of a fairy tale, Bitter Greens is definitely not for children or even the lower tier of the young adult genre. Many of the themes and issues raised, such as religion, politics, and prostitution, place it firmly in adult fiction. But overall, this is a seductive read which fans of both historical fiction and fantasy will not be able to resist. Kate has also written another fairy tale novel called The Wild Girl, which I have reviewed here. I highly recommend this one, too!
You can find out more about Bitter Greens and the research Kate carried out for it on her blog.