Friday, April 19, 2013

Reading Notes: Bitter Greens

Next up on the Aurealis list for me was a book from the Fantasy Novel nominees - Kate Forsyth's retelling of the Rapunzel story, Bitter Greens.

I've been pairing books from the Sci Fi and Fantasy lists in my reading, which can be a little dizzying, but also really helps me to assess books on their merits rather than in terms of "are they exactly like the previous title which I enjoyed or hated??" which is a bit of a trap when reading solidly in one genre. So far, I've read 2 from each list - Sea Hearts and Bitter Greens from the fantasy list, and And All the Stars and The Last City from the sci fi list. Review of The Last City at the weekend if I get time! I've just started Garth Nix's Confusion of Princes, another sci fi title, and Jo Spurrier's Winter Be My Shield (fantasy), but with the next three weeks looking a bit craptastic in terms of time, I don't expect to finish and review them until mid-May.

Enough of that - on to Bitter Greens.

The first thing to be said about this book it is that it is one of that rarest of achievements in fiction - a really successful genre-blender. Told through the lens of the life of real French aristocrat and author at the court of the Sun King, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the story is a vivid, engaging and entirely satisfying historical novel, picking apart the conventions and limitations of Charlotte-Rose's social milieu and the terrifying religious persecutions that Louis XIV inflicted on France's Hugenots (Protestants).  At the same time, it is also a beautiful, savage retelling of the Rapunzel story, set in a historical-yet-magical Venice of the sixteenth century. The hook that ties the two together is that Charlotte-Rose was, in reality, one of the first popular writers of the Rapunzel myth, bringing an older folktale to the attention of the court (and, subsequently, the world).

What I loved the most about this book was the powerful, persuasive characters who drive it. To me, the main protagonists are unquestionably Charlotte-Rose and Selena Leonelli, La Strega (The Witch). Margherita, the Rapunzel of the mythic half of the story, seems straightforward, almost muted, beside these two magnificently messy, mixed up, vibrant, living women, one basically good, the other ... well, it's complicated.

In fact, it is in the character of Selena that I think Bitter Greens reaches its peak power. It is no mean feat to create a character who is at once really repugnant - selfish, brutal, sinuous, and yes, evil - and is still human, still driven by fear and past scars, and filled with the belief that what they do is justified (so does not see themselves as evil, although is uneasily aware that their actions have unwanted consequences for others). Giving us the backstory of the witch is the narrative decision that, to me, sets this book higher than several other fairytale mash-ups I have read. Selena's mother's fate (warning note here: strong stomach needed, this section is extremely confronting and horrific) casts an inescapable shadow over the whole of Selena's life, right til the moment that the spell is finally broken. It is a sign of how deeply Forsyth has been able to persuade us of Selena's humanity that when Margherita is able to break the enchantment, the sigh of satisfied relief is for Selena's release as much as for Margherita and her lover.

Overall, this was a really excellent book. I read it quickly, found it engaging even when confronting, and possessed of the requisite appropriate ending that a story melding history and myth should have. I'd recommend it to "traditional" fantasy lovers and historical fiction fans alike.


  1. Thanks for the review, I've just bought it for the kindle!

  2. Thank you so much for your beautiful & insightful review. I'm so glad you loved the book & that you understand & appreciate my narrative choices :) Telling part of the story from the point of view of the witch was always important to me.

    1. Thank YOU for your comment! I'm so pleased you feel the review does the book's choices justice.