Bitter Greens: Book Review

Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth, Random House Publishers, 2012.

RRP: $32.95 Aus. 

Bitter Greens is Australian fantasy author, Kate Forsyth’s newest offering; adult, historical and a little bit magical. Before I go on to review this book, I have to admit something pretty embarassing to admit for an avid Australian fantasy reader; until reading Bitter Greens, I had never read an entire book by Kate before. When I was twelve, mum’s teacher friend who I was rather scared of, gave me The Starthorn Tree to shut me up during a Girl Guide Christmas Tree Sale Fundraiser at her house. I *think* I made it halfway through before her kids came home and I gave up reading.

To this day I can’t remember a single thing about that book. I know it disturbed me. No idea why. I never picked up a book by Kate again because a teacher had once reccomended her books, and as any kid knows, this is A Very Bad Thing (if you are scared of/dislike the teacher). The point is I came into Bitter Greens with no idea of what to expect; on the one hand I love fairy story revisionism, on the other, there was that teacher to contend with. Kids have long memories, that’s all I’m saying.

Bitter Greens is an interesting hybrid. Both a retelling of the Rapunzel “Little Parsley” fairy story, and a historical fiction that gives Phillipa Greggory a run for her money; Kate manages to weave a complex braid of smaller stories into one story. After Charlotte-Rose de la Force is banished by the Sun King to a nunnery, a nun tries to comfort her by telling the story of Margherita, a girl sold by her parents to the courtesan witch, La Strega, for a handful of bitter greens. The stories of Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena Leonelli (La Strega) create Bitter Greens; forming both a treastise on the importance and power of storytelling, and the ways in which women find power, happiness and fufillment in a predominantly male world.

To my surprise, most of the book actually deals with the life of 16th century Charlotte-Rose de la Force, cousin to King Louis XiV and original creator of the Rapunzel story as we know and love it today. Serving both as a celebration of a woman’s very interesting and passionate life and as a kind of parable about the healing nature of stories- the ways in which they shape us and give our lives meaning – Kate weaves the Rapunzel story throughout Charlotte-Rose’s confinement in the nunnery; the story unravelling as Charlotte-Rose remembers, and comes to terms with, her own chequered life; the things that are worth fighting for, the things that aren’t.

I admit that there was a point in the middle of the book where I wondered where all of the Charlotte-Rose recollections were going and started to get a bit worried about the story as a whole. Luckily, the vivid descriptions of France and Italy (in particular Venice) kept me page turning and the ending was such that if I reread Bitter Greens now, I would probably appreciate the middle a whole lot more. Ending on a message of hope, acceptance, and peace; the message that one can do anything they wish if they just close their eyes and leap spoke to me. There are certain themes that I love to come back to and that theme is one of them, the other is the storytelling theme also present in Bitter Greens.

As I was reading, I was reminded of the Emilie Autumn song, Rapunzel:

If you sing loud and clear

someone passing by will surely hear you

no- you can’t be afraid

if you ever want somebody near you.

Metaphorically speaking, all three of the women in Bitter Greens learn this through hardship and growth. There is sex (Good. Bad. Indifferent.) There is violence. There is pain, but ultimately there is always hope of redemption, forgiveness and the possibility of a brighter future. Bitter Greens is a complex, meticulously researched adult tale that takes you evocatively back to another time period. Rich characterisations, interesting themes and the reclaiming of female voice in history (including courtesans), make this book well worth its $33 dollars.

Bitter Greens: 4/5 inky stars.

Oh- and for the record, my irrational fear is cured. I am now reading The Starthorn Tree.

(IA Note: You can also read Kate’s Rapunzel poem at Enchanted Conversations here:

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