REVIEW: THE BEAST’S GARDEN BY KATE FORSYTH

THE BEAST’S GARDEN

Author: Kate Forsyth
Vintage Australia RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

9780857980403 (1)A wrenching tale of love, courage and standing up for what’s right, The Beast’s Garden had me in tears a number of times. Of course, the passionate and moving love story, beautifully told by Kate Forsyth, is mostly responsible, but so too is the link to my own family history. My family is German; my grandparents on both sides migrated to Australia in the 1950s.  Reading about life at the time of their youth is interesting, but also sad, because I know they lived in a place and time full of darkness. This book was the first of four completely different novels, read all in a row (by chance not design), set in, or inspired by Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. It made for an emotional reading week or two.

The Beast’s Garden is a retelling of the Grimm brothers’ ‘Beauty and The Beast’ in which Ava, the beauty, falls in love with Leo von Löwenstein, a young Nazi officer and the beast of the story. The story opens in 1939 when Ava, a Jewish sympathiser, meets Leo (who works for Hitler’s spy chief in Berlin) after a book burning event. Although she is attracted to him, she is repelled by his role in the regime, and for some time resists him. Eventually, to save her father’s life, she marries Leo, not realising how her love for him would grow, or how difficult it will be to fight against the work of the man she loves. And yet, without his knowledge, that’s exactly what she does – her hatred of the brutal Nazi regime compels her to join an underground resistance movement. She lives a double life, deeply in love with her husband, but working behind the scenes to help people survive the horror of war; unknown to her, Leo also lives a double life, working as part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

I loved this story. It’s superbly written, full of intrigue and danger, with a beautiful love story springing from the darkness. Reading it was harrowing – I had to put the book down a couple of times. Not because of the love story (though that evoked plenty of ‘will they make it’ gasps), but rather the descriptions of life in the camps, of bands playing on while people were murdered, of unspeakable cruelty, and of people doing what they had to do to survive. The latter was one of the stand-out aspects of the story – what people will do, the choices they will make when life as they know it has collapsed. Choices like taking clothes off a dead person to keep warm, or playing dead by hiding among corpses. This aspect led to some interesting discussion with my husband about survival vs morality, and the way survival situations bring out the best and worst in people. It also made me think of War as a character in its own right, as an entity with the capacity to bring out that best and worst. It’s a Beast, but there is also Beauty to be found.

If you love books that combine epic romance with history, that maintain authenticity despite the romance, The Beast’s Garden is a must read. Bitter Greens still has my heart, but this haunting story stayed with me for days after. I’ll read it again.

Click here for an extract.

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