Re-tellings can be just as just as masterful.
Publisher: Allison & Busby
First Published: 20th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th March 2013
Charlotte-Rose is banished to a convent after causing one too many scandals at the court of Louis XIV. It’s a terrible punishment, but she manages to befriend an old nun who tells her the story of a girl who was kept in a tower by a witch. But the witch has her own story to tell, dark and full of despair, and Charlotte-Rose, not always in the garden with Soeur Seraphina, has much time to look back on her old life, too.
Bitter Greens is an utterly fantastic retelling of Rapunzel, blended together with the factually-based story of the woman who wrote down the version we know today. Not at all suited for children, Forsyth’s book is an incredibly dark account and far more stupendous.
The novel is a constant succession of details, complexity, and magnificence. Set in France and Italy, Forsyth doesn’t simply introduce the reader to the history, the life at court and beyond, she soaks you in it. She adeptly demonstrates the hypocrisy of a Catholic court where people had many lovers, and shows that, for all its glamour, the court was a place of extreme cruelty. Indeed the book can be hard to read at times, gritty and depressing as it is, because Forsyth never holds back, she details sexual abuse, gang rape, murder, torture – in fact given the amount of it you could be forgiven for thinking it gratuitous. Unfortunately it cannot be said that it is – whilst Forsyth’s characters, other than Charlotte-Rose and some of those at court, are fictional, the horrors surely echo real life. It has been said on many occasions, especially recently, that fairy tales are in fact dark and cruel, but it’s easy to gloss over that darkness and look at all the glitter and magic. Forsyth reminds you what is behind that glare that blinds you to the truth.
The storytelling is exceptional. Even when the story is repetitious (and given the routine life at a renaissance convent and the sheer boredom of being shut in a tower for months, that is going to happen) it manages to keep its pace. Forsyth fills the pages with such detail and intriguing thought (her characters think of everything and are strong enough to recommend them to memory) that entire chapters may pass before you realise you’re still reading about the same dull life of Rapunzel (here called Margherita).
And Forsyth weaves the magic in beautifully. For a while she almost teases you – will there be true magic or will it be more of a metaphor? – and when it does arrive it is the sort of magic that fills childhood stories, yet the book never looses its darkness or the adult atmosphere. Forsyth invites you to leave reality behind and embrace all the stories that are ‘supposed’ to be denounced upon maturity. And it is every bit as thrilling as it was as a child, only now it also includes the necessary ingredients to keep you hooked as an adult.
It should be noted that there is a lot of social and religious history in the book. Charlotte-Rose lived in a time of Inquisition, when Louis XIV decided to revoke the tolerance afforded to Protestants. It is surely to Forsyth’s good fortune that Charlotte-Rose’s story aligned with this religious persecution as it allows the purely fictional elements to be ensconced in the history, sounding as true as it could ever sound. If the vast majority of men and women under suspicion as witches were innocent, then the author examines those few that could have feasibly made magic their career. And she looks at the known wise-women who were frequented for love potions and curses as well as for abortion and medicines, using fiction to wonder at the possibility of there being true magic assigned to them.
The social history includes a lot of inequality on various levels, for example class and gender. Forsyth shows how weak the position of women was and explores the strengths and intelligence of women to a point where you might just ask yourself why these clever (and sometimes understandably manipulative) women didn’t simply turn on their men. In other words, you could use this book as a study of women’s history, because it has information and both fictionalised and factual accounts in abundance. Examined too are, of course, the convents, where women were thought to be independent. Forsyth demonstrates that this was the case, but only to a degree, due to both male dominance outside the walls and the female hierarchy and bullying inside. A convent could be freeing, but also a death sentence.
It will not surprise you to hear that general sexuality issues are explored as well, with all the prejudices and biases history has provided it.
Lest you wonder where Forsyth could have possibly fitted any characters other than cardboard cut-outs into this, given all the time taken by issues and magic, let us consider the women at the heart of the three narratives (the narratives being Charlotte-Rose, Margherita, and the witch Selena Leonelli). As you may have expected, they are written superbly well. Strong in the face of adversity, cunning and clever, and just simply captivating, for all their strife there is reason to look forward to returning to each of their stories; the book switches back and forth between the tales. Margherita might give you pause, but is it not a case of her being too young and innocent? Selena is an evil witch, but is her own story not heartbreaking? And as scandalous as Charlotte-Rose could be understood to be, is she not just a force of independence and free will?
The romances and secondary characters are all interesting. Forsyth employs few curtains – there is a lot of sex in this book – and perhaps one of the elements that is most obvious to take away with you is the thought that worse than hate is indifference. This indifference being that of Louis XIV, a man so self-absorbed that the terminal illnesses of others were considered inconveniences, things not to be allowed to interfere with the King’s wishes. Talking of men, perhaps most interesting is the way Forsyth includes many instances of men being dominated themselves, by other men. A man was an independent, able to do what he liked in a way no woman could, but add hierarchy and family into the mix and suddenly a man was a prisoner of tradition and society not so unlike all women. Not as horrific, certainly, but still a pawn in the games of influence and pride. Incidentally, of men, Forsyth’s version of Rapunzel’s prince is a brilliant example of bringing mundane reality to fairy tales.
The ending could be considered convenient until you remember that the book is purposefully fantastical by its very nature. It might be less than expected but at the same time it is far from disagreeable, and by the end of all the terror, you’ll likely welcome it.
Having used up a lot of the most laudatory words in the English language, this review is going to have to have a moment of repetition: Bitter Greens is a masterpiece. A mix of history, fantasy, romance, and, let it be said, horror, it is completely worthy of your time. If you want a final recommendation, let this be it: if you don’t want to miss the book that might end up being your favourite of the year, you’ll want to read it, and soon.
I received this book for review from Allison & Busby for Historical Fiction Virtual Author Tours.
March 15, 2013, 10:02 am
This sounds like an amazing book which I simply must read! I have added it to my wish list.
March 15, 2013, 1:27 pm
I’ve just started seeing this around the blogosphere and it sounds so good! Fab review!
March 15, 2013, 6:54 pm
I’m hearing only great comments about this – most definitely on the wishlist now!
March 17, 2013, 9:07 pm
Oh bother and blast. I was really excited to read this because I love retellings of Rapunzel and my life doesn’t contain enough of them, but now I have to downgrade my feelings to wait-and-see. I don’t mind exactly reading books that have rape and sexual abuse in them, but I am easily irritated by authors who haven’t handled those subjects in a way that doesn’t annoy me. Hmmmmmm. But I do LOVE a Rapunzel retelling…
March 19, 2013, 4:31 pm
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March 21, 2013, 1:46 pm
Fabulous review. I’m planning to read this soon and I’m really excited about it.
March 22, 2013, 3:54 pm
I’m currently reading this and it’s such a fast read I have found. I do wonder how I’ll deal with the amount of sexual abuse you list there.. but for now, I’m really enjoying the book.
March 22, 2013, 5:16 pm
WOW, I feel like I’m loosing my time being at the computer instead of going to a book shop to buy this book :)
I have seen it in other blogs but I think I haven’t read other reviews, but well, it goes straight ahead to my list. I didn’t know it was about Rapunzel, but “for adults”, sounds great!!
Thanks for the fantastic review.
March 24, 2013, 12:28 pm
Jessica: I say go for it :D True, I’d likely recommend it to anyone, but I think you’d like it.
Jennifer: It is brilliant. Thanks!
Teresa: To be honest, I think this is the sort of book that is difficult to find faults with across the board. And I say that having really tried because I prefer not to gush. I think you’d like it :)
Jenny: You know, that was something I thought of for a time – trying to work out if it was gratuitous or just educational and true. As it continues you can see how Forsyth used it to educate as well as show just how dark fairytales are. So from my point of view I’d say she handled it well.
Ana: Ana, I think you’d love this one.
Iris: Yes, it’s great, isn’t it? It’s long but you don’t really notice it. There is a lot of abuse and just sex/innuendo in general, but Forsyth’s dealt with it more in an educational way – it’s not sex for sex’ sake.
Isi: Ahh, but then again has being on the Internet introduced you to this book :) Yep, Rapunzel for adults but it keeps the basics of the childhood story, that bit has stayed. Thank you for the compliment!
March 29, 2013, 10:21 am
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