THE WILD GIRL
Author: Kate Forsyth
Random House RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan
Infused with imagination and sprinkled with soul, The Wild Girl has won my heart in the same way as Bitter Greens did last year. An enduring love story, fairy tales and a backdrop of politics and epic battles that would be the stuff of fantasy if it wasn’t real … what more could I ask for in a book? Not much, except perhaps another Kate Forsyth novel fast, for when I finished this book I felt as if I’d said goodbye to a special friend. It’s taken me a few days to let my thoughts settle enough to review The Wild Girl – its richness and beauty had such a hold over me that I needed time for the right words to fall into place.
Set in the small German kingdom of Cassel (now spelled Kassel) in the early 19th century, The Wild Girl spans nearly two decades during the barbaric Napoleonic wars. At its heart, it’s a beautiful and compelling portrait of Dortchen Wild, one of six Wild sisters, and the real-life source of many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. It builds on knowledge that Dortchen married Wilhelm Grimm, drawing from this a dramatic, memorable and evocative love story that echoes many of the dark tales the Grimm brothers collected.
Dortchen lives next door to the desperately poor Grimm family; kind and compassionate, Dortchen secretly helps the family whenever she can, all the while knowing her tyrannical father’s thoughts on the matter (she’s not called the ‘wild’ one for nothing). When she meets Wilhelm Grimm, a sensitive collector of stories and folklore, she falls for him immediately; over time her feelings mature into a deep and abiding love – a love that seems hopeless and doomed to be thwarted by timing, circumstance and other people. Wilhelm’s feelings gradually mirror Dortchen’s (at first he sees her as a younger sister figure); when her storytelling abilities become known, he entreats on her to meet him and share her stories, many of which are recognisable to readers today, such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘The Frog King’, and others less so, such as ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’ and ‘Six Swans’. By the time Wilhelm realises the depth of his feelings, Dortchen’s father is watching closely – marriage is not on his agenda for Dortchen (and even if it was, Wilhelm is too poor for his daughter).
As her other sisters marry and leave home, Dortchen is forced to stay and look after the ever-dwindling family, with her father’s demands becoming increasingly unreasonable and disturbing. As details of this emerge and escalate, the narrative becomes more and more disturbing … although sensitively written, with more implication than graphic detail, some parts are shocking and difficult to read. They still linger in my memory. Dortchen’s story here resembles the dark and gritty fairytales the Grimm brothers are collecting and it’s no surprise that she tries to use a fairy tale to communicate her distress and situation to Wilhelm. It’s also no surprise that he misses her true meaning. Oh, how I felt Dortchen’s despair at this point … it tore at me and I wanted to shake Wilhelm! However, history tells us that in Dortchen and Wilhelm’s romance had the fairy tale happy ever after; they eventually married and lived with Wilhelm’s elder brother Jakob for the rest of their lives.
I’m not a scholar of fairy tales, just a lover of them – so my response to Forsyth’s use of them in The Wild Girl comes purely from a sense of appreciation; the fairy tales were woven through the narrative, adding depth to Dortchen’s life portrait and the story in general, in a masterful way. Forsyth’s research, not only of the fairy tales but of the political atmosphere at the time, is impressive and reflects her commitment to creating believable historical fiction readers can sink into. Her storytelling ability has also awakened a desire in me to read Grimms’ Fairytales again – and not the Disney versions.
Aside from the brilliant storytelling, Forsyth examines a number of social issues such as the cruel and bleak impact of war, women’s roles, social expectations, poverty, living conditions, and so on. The Wild Girl is as much a portrait of the times as of Dortchen’s life and I enjoyed this insight, both as a reader and as a woman of German heritage. At times Forsyth evoked the horror of war so acutely that I was moved to tears, reminding me that I’ve led a blessed life free of oppression and crippling poverty; I found myself being thankful that my sons do not have to experience the shattering impact of war service. Funny where your mind leads you when you read … On another note, I particularly liked the inclusion of the free-spirited Bettina and Hanne, who in their own ways rejected societal expectations of them as women. They wanted their experience of women to be different; their actions and beliefs awoke something in Dortchen, but sadly, her spirit was crushed and she was for a time, unable to contemplate a different path. It was sad to see the effect that the cycle of control and abuse had on this intelligent and once spirited woman; sadder still that these cycles remain present in many women’s lives today.
Can you tell that I loved this book? Reading this book was like walking into a dark forest and finding a gingerbread cottage, studded with sweets but with a disturbing centre; I was captivated by the romance, horrified by the darkness at its core and enchanted by Forsyth’s writing. It took some time to shake off the spell Forsyth cast over me and now, a week later, I just want to read it all over again.
Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of Random House.
Bookish treat: Slabs of gingerbread with soft jellies pressed into lemon-infused icing. Yum!