Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.


Wonderfully Grim Fairy Tales

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt ★★★★
In the opening pages, Olive Wellwood and he son Tom are visiting South Kensington Museum. Olive, a popular writer of children’s fantasy and fairy tales, is looking for an object to which she can attribute magical properties in her next novel, while her son Tom is on the trail of a young boy, Phillip, who is busily sketching some of the objects on display. When it is discovered the boy has made his temporary home in the museum’s basement, Olive offers to take him into her home, a sprawling property just South of London called Todefright. There, her banker husband and fellow Fabian Humphrey and their seven children are busily preparing decorations and costumes for their yearly Midsummer party, to which they invite their friends and neighbours, a jolly mix of socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers, and writers. After the festivities, it is decided that the boy Phillip will go stay at Purchase House with the Fludds, to become an apprentice to the mercurial and brilliant potter Benedict Fludd, who’s work is on display at the museum.

The story follows the progress of the adults and children, their extended families and numerous friends and relations from the end of the Victorian era in 1895 through World War One, so it’s clear from the beginning that things are going to go horribly wrong eventually, and they do. Olive’s dark fairy tales form a central motif throughout, the book title referring to a collection of notebooks she has created for each of her children, each containing ongoing adventures, though it is Tom’s story which she works at the most and it takes on larger than life implications. Through these characters, many issues of great relevance in England during that period are encompassed, including women’s higher education and the suffrage movement, the class wars, anarchism and socialism. The Arts and Crafts movement is a recurring theme, and various historical figures are incorporated into the story such as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke.

I found this book by turns fascinating and frustrating. The main story elements were engaging and the unfolding drama was captivating, but my limited understanding of several of the issues broached prevented me from gaining a fuller appreciation for the many ways in which Byatt wove historical and fictional elements together. At the same time, for one interested in that period, the book provides plenty of threads one can pick up on for further reading. Recommended for those interested in works of great scope and intellectual stimulation. As an aside, I have to say that the cover design in itself is a work of art and played a large role in my decision to purchase this book. Glad I did.

La belle au bois dormant by Tahar Ben Jelloun

“Once upon a time there were a king and queen who were very sad and discontent, for they could not conceive a child. They had tried everything, following the advice of several doctors and midwives and even a few sorcerers. One adviser went as far as suggesting to the king that he follow as special diet and eat at regular hours while holding the queen’s hand. But in vain. One day, the king and his wife went to the Mountain of Childhood, where they stayed for seven days and seven nights drinking the brackish and warm water of the Source of Life. They often felt nauseous and vomited their meals, but without complaining. When they returned to the palace, they made their prayers before entering the chamber of love…”

So begins the tale of Sleeping Beauty as retold by Tahar Ben Jelloun, born in Morocco and a respected French writer and poet who was awarded the Legion of Honour by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. I have here given a rough translation of the first paragraph or this familiar fairy tale as retold in the original French, but with a Middle-Eastern flavour. Here, sleeping beauty is awakened not by the tall blonde green-eyed prince she imagined but by a short, skinny brown-haired one who must first deliver her from the snakes of the desert that are defending her door, and when Sleeping Beauty—here known as Jawhara—emerges from her hundred-year nap, her skin turns black as the night. After some time the prince must bring his beloved and their two small children back to the family palace where his mother, a cruel woman filled with prejudice, believes that all black people should be slaves. She tries to drown their children at sea and hires an ogre to cut out Jawhara’s liver which she intends to eat, but of course her plan is thwarted when the ogre, upon seeing Jawhara, is so charmed by the light emanating from her beautiful face that he comes up with a plan to defeat the evil queen instead…

A charming story, and an original retelling, and the book itself is a sheer pleasure to behold, with cover art and illustrations that add tremendous appeal to the overall experience. It was a Christmas gift from my mother who lives in France and whom I haven’t seen in six years now. I had perused the book before, but this was the first time I actually read the story, and because of the beauty of the book and the sentimental attachment I have to it, I can only say that I cannot find fault with it and was put under its spell.