When I picked up The Wild Girl, I was expecting to like it. I liked Kate Forsyth’s other fairy tale based novel, Bitter Greens, and was eager to find out about this Dortchen Wild whom I had never heard of before. It never even crossed my mind that it would turn out to be one of those books…
The Wild Girl destroyed me, in the best way. The way that only books can. It made me cry, laugh, want to curl up with it in bed and also throw it across the room. It refused to let me stop turning the pages (apart from when I had to go and get tissues!), and had pulled me into Hessen-Cassel before I even had time to protest. Not that I would have done, anyway!
Part of The Wild Girl’s charm is that it is mostly a true story. Dortchen Wild and her family lived next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, the now world-famous fairy tale collectors. Many picture them as travellers, scouring the country for stories. But in reality, they were poor and initially struggled to gain interest in their collection. Most of their stories came from reading groups composed of their friends.
Whilst the Grimm Brothers are well documented, little is known about Dortchen Wild apart from that she told them some stories and eventually married Wilhelm Grimm in 1825. By writing The Wild Girl, Kate set about changing this and giving this fascinating woman a voice. In doing so, she has unearthed an epic and little-known love story. For the first time, the Grimms have been portrayed as real people, instead of just household names and old scholars. I have to say, it was very brave of Kate to undertake the task of turning Jacob and Wilhelm into characters. It’s always difficult to fictionalise real people, especially when they’re so illustrious. But she does one hell of a good job! That’s got to be some sort of writer achievement unlocked.
Dortchen’s and Wilhelm’s relationship feels very natural, showing Kate has taken great care to portray it. The idea of meeting in secret and falling in love by telling stories has got to be the most romantic thing EVER. And knowing that it literally happened makes it all the more poignant.
The Wild Girl is not just a story. It is a story about stories, and ways they relate to real life and can be used to explain it. A variety of fairy tales feature, both well-known ones such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ and also more obscure ones like ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ and ‘The Maiden With No Hands.’ Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but think that Kate must have had fun deciding which ones to use and where to place them. In certain parts, the tales Dortchen tells reflect her own life so much it’s heartbreaking. Moreover, it’s not essential to go into this book knowing a lot about fairy tales. It’s nice if you can recognise them, but if you can’t then you can still understand the symbolism and you get to discover new tales!
Even I didn’t recognise every fairy tale used, which resulted in me hunting down a copy of this as soon as I finished reading:
The work Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did is inspirational, and they didn’t even know it at the time. They just wanted to collect stories; a noble pursuit in any context if you ask me, but because of them hundreds of fairy tales have been preserved and disseminated. Where would the world of folklore be without these? Maybe someone else would have eventually recorded them instead, but that’s not the point. The Grimms were the ones and I’m glad that their story has been brought to life in such a beautiful way. Behind every fairy tale are its tellers, a fact which is often overshadowed by the tales themselves.
My only grievance with The Wild Girl is that towards the end, the pace speeds up considerably. It feels like it’s rushing towards the conclusion, when there are sections which it would have been nice to have a bit more detail about. This contrasts with the earlier parts of the novel where the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It provides a strong insight into the time period and culture of Hessen-Cassel, but it is much slower so when suddenly things go quicker it’s a little jarring.
However, the slow start means there is plenty of time to get emotionally invested. As a result, I spent pretty much the entirety of the last 60 pages in tears. Another writer achievement right there!
One final thing I will say is that The Wild Girl contains themes may be uncomfortable for some readers. For example, war, sickness, and sexual abuse. None of this is endorsed, but it is present. Also, I definitely wouldn’t say that any of this content is a reason to not read the book.
The Wild Girl weaves fairy tales, reality, and love into something so deep and profound that you won’t ever want to leave it alone. From looking at the Goodreads reviews, literally all of them are 4 or 5 stars so clearly it’s not just me who was enchanted. If you want a book to lose yourself in and restore your faith in love, then this is it.