Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth: Book Review

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is so well-researched and beautifully written that I have sought special permission to quote.  My copy is another of those uncorrected bound proofs but it would be a great disservice to Forsyth to review this work without giving some samples of her prose.

 With the publisher’s permission, here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite passages:-

Words.  I had always loved them.  I collected them, like I had collected pretty stones as a child.  I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch. (444)

 Between the pages of this substantial novel you’ll find a re-imagining of the Rapunzel fairytale interwoven with a fictionalised account of the life of French writer Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, complete with the intrigue and scandal that accompanied her life at court under the regime of Louise XIV.

 Let’s talk about Charlotte-Rose first; a feminist before the word existed; a feisty passionate woman; a lover of words and art, sex and life.  In the opening pages, Charlotte-Rose is being shipped off to a nunnery upon the orders of the King.  She is still unsure if her punishment is for some impious carols she had written, a rumour she was having an affair with the King’s son, or merely her bold expression of her views.  She wonders if her words – written and spoken – had grown too sharp.

 As a writer, I felt a personal joy in Charlotte-Rose’s love of the implements of her craft:-

My writing tools were my most precious belongings.  My best quill pen was made from a raven’s feather. [. . .] I was often so poor that I could not pay my mantua-maker, but I always invested in the best ink and parchment.  I smoothed it with pumice stone till it was as white and fine as my own skin, ready to absorb the rapid scratching of my quill. (26)

 Forsyth’s imaginative turns of phrase infuse the novel with a deep lyrical quality.  When Charlotte-Rose is awoken in the middle of the night, she lies disorientated and afraid and her mind is ‘filled with the flapping rags of dreams’ (38).  A blown-out candle leaves ‘a question mark of smoke in the air’ (107) and dawn ‘slithered in like a fat grey slug’ (423).  In her prison tower, hunger becomes for Margherita ‘a hot presence in the room, a companion that never let her be’. (187)

 Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney and her knowledge of the subject, together with the historical background of the Huguenots of France and Venice Renaissance life, gives believability to the lives of the central female characters. Period detail is imparted with beautiful subtlety:

Soeur Seraphina gently removed my lace fontanges. It was named for the King’s mistress Angelique de Fontanges, who had lost her hat while hunting one day and had hastily tied up her curls with her garter.  The King had admired the effect, and the next day all the court ladies had appeared with their curls tied back with lace. (21)

The author resists the urge to rely on the fairytale stereotypes of good and evil, giving sympathetic back-stories to dark characters like La Strega.  One chapter, titled ‘Love and Hatred’, is so perfectly circular it could form a self-contained short story.  After opening with ‘Love and hatred were the witch’s currency,’ the chapter closes with the young La Strega in-the-making becoming an apprentice by day and a courtesan by night. ‘One I loved and the other I hated.  A good training ground for a witch’. (235)

 Bitter Greens is a page turner.  Charlotte-Rose is such a loveable character, that it becomes imperative to know her fate, along with that of Rapunzel.  You may think you’d be well aware of what happened to Rapunzel but there are so many different takes on this fairytale and, in Forsyth’s capable hands, the tale could have finished any number of ways.

 Some other reviews you might like to check out:-

Thuy Linh Nguyen for Kill Your Darlings.
Christine Cremen for Sydney Morning Herald
Tania McCartney for Australian Women Online

Forsyth, Kate. Bitter Greens, Random House, North Sydney, 2012.
ISBN 978 1 74166 845 2
Uncorrected Bound Proof


Filed under Reviews

11 responses to “Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth: Book Review

  1. Wow, doesn’t this shine a light on what writing was like before the pen! I mean, of course, we all know about quills, but it’s so easy to forget what a business it must have been to use them.

    • Yes, there’s lots of snippets like that dotted here and there and I was easily transported.
      Of course, I can barely write without my keyboard and screen these days, let alone being reliant on a quill and parchment!

  2. Thank you so much for your beautiful review! I’m so glad you loved ‘Bitter Greens’ and I’m especially thrilled with your comments about my writing. We writers work so hard to craft the perfect sentence, its always wonderful when people notice 🙂
    I’m glad you liked the paragraphs about Charlotte-Rose and her quill, too. I really tried to imagine what it would have been to write a novel long-hand with a quill that had to be dipped in an ink-pot every few words, and which only lasted a few pages before it had to be sharpened, or replaced, on paper that had to be smoothed with a pumice stone, and then dried with sand so the ink wouldn’t smudge … it can’t have been easy!
    many warm wishes for your own writing
    Kate Forsyth

    • Nice of you to pop by Kate. It’s not every day I get a visit from an award-winning author (Five Aurealis gongs in a single year no less!).
      When I put in my request to use quotes in my review, your publishers very kindly sent me a copy of the published product which I received today. I thought it would be fun to offer it as a prize to the members of my writers’ group. Would you consider suggesting a little writing exercise such as a descriptive passage or a sentence? I’m sure the group would be delighted to win this copy, especially if the opportunity came via a suggestion by the accomplished author herself.

      • Sure! I’d be happy to. Why don’t we have a Rapunzel theme, to tie in with the book. Perhaps everyone in your writing group could write a paragraph imagining what it must be like to find yourself locked away in a tower. What would you feel? How would you react?

      • Terrific idea. With the winning writer’s permission, I’ll post their piece up after our next meeting.

  3. annabelsmith

    Based on a description of this book it didn’t appeal to me but your review has definitely made me want to read it. Thanks!

    • I was a bit the same Annabel. It is not the type of book I would normally have made a bee-line for. But it is a real surprise and beautifully written.
      The amount of research hours the author must have put in is mind-boggling.

      • annabelsmith

        I really admire that. I am a terribly slack researcher myself. I don’t think I could ever write a historical fiction for that reason.

  4. I seem to have trouble posting replies, once we’ve drilled down a couple so this will not appear in the right place. But thanks Kate for that terrific suggestion. With the winning writer’s permission, I’ll post their piece up here after our next meeting.

  5. Pingback: Winner of the Rapunzel Competition | Karenlee Thompson

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