REVIEWS 2012: BITTER GREENS BY KATE FORSYTHE

BITTER GREENS
Author: Kate Forsyth
Vintage Books RRP  $32.95 
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Bitter Greens“I thought about what I’d have done if I’d been Rapunzel – I’d have fought back, I’d have plotted to escape, I’d have tricked the witch somehow.” – Kate Forsyth, on the inspirations behind Bitter Greens.

Sometimes you read a book that has you enchanted, captivated and enthralled from beginning to end. That’s what Bitter Greens (Kate Forsythe) was for me, from the gorgeous front cover to the spellbinding story contained within.

Bitter Greens is Forsythe’s retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale – that of the golden-tressed maiden locked in a tower by a witch, with no way out. The story begins with Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been banished from court by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. She is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, was sold (reluctantly) by her parents for a handful of bitter greens – parsley, wintercress and rapunzel.

That young girl is Margherita. Kept captive by the witch and courtesan Selena Leonelli, also known as La Strega Bella and formerly the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, Margherita longs for freedom and love; instead she is bound to Selena through a dark magic that appears impossible to break. Her voice, breaking into songs of hope, is all that keeps her going. Forsyth skilfully weaves in Selena’s story, that of a brutally orphaned girl who, seeking vengeance, learns the dark arts from Wise Sibillia. Warning: as the reader gets to know Selena, first impressions may be challenged.

Like a tapestry recalling a richly embroidered tale, Bitter Greens weaves together the stories of three beautiful and intriguing women, creating a truly mesmerising and memorable book. As in all good fairy tales, there are elements of desire, obsession, black magic and true love, but this story has a depth created by the strong, independent characters, beautiful prose, a romantic renaissance setting and varying perspectives. The combination of historical fiction and fairy tale works a treat. And this not a story where the handsome prince does all the work, saving helpless maidens – here the women, each in their own way, fight back. They save themselves – which is just what Forsyth wanted.

Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real person – she wrote the fairy tale Persinette,which means Little Parsley, while banished from court. Her collection of fairy tales, Les Contes des Contes, was one of the first collections of French literary fairy tales. I  love how Forsyth has blended the real with the imaginary, unfolding a richly woven story that is at once fascinating, fanciful and familiar. Her characters, particularly that of Charlotte-Rose (I’d have loved to have met her), were beautifully developed despite their complexity, as was the narrative as a whole. The whole story, while at heart a fairy tale, rings with authenticity. It becomes much more than just a story. Bitter Greens is the kind of book you never want to end – I was sad when it was finished and I can’t wait to read it again.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.