Having long loved the Rapunzel fairy tale, I couldn’t wait to start reading Kate Forsyth’s latest novel. Bitter Greens not only retells the classic Rapunzel story, but also gives us the witch’s point of view, along with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the writer responsible for the French version of the tale.
In keeping with its historical origins, the stories of Rapunzel and the witch are set in 16th-century Venice. Charlotte-Rose’s narrative is set in 17th-century France, a world of superstition, religious persecution, and the sumptuous courts of Louis the Fourteenth. Having been banished to an impoverished rural abbey for slighting the notorious Sun King, Huguenot-born Charlotte-Rose must somehow endure the strictures of convent life, all the while waiting for friends on the outside to secure her release. But her life not been devoid of risk or scandal, and she soon realises freedom is unattainable. Through friendship with the mysterious infirmarian Sœur Seraphina, she is eventually able to mourn her loss of liberty and find meaning in the long narrow years of her confinement.
Bitter Greens is not a literary novel (though it is beautifully rendered). It is a fairy tale: the story of a witch, an incarcerated maiden, and a reluctant French novice, an immensely enjoyable work in which fantasy and historical elements are skilfully interwoven. As an added bonus, Forsyth gives us a handsome prince who is young, devoid of cliché and altogether quite likeable. If at times the women’s first-person voices seem to blend a little, the writer can be forgiven, as each one is vividly brought to life, giving us a tale that is as long and lustrous as Rapunzel’s amber tresses.
This is a perfect book to curl up in a chair and forget the world with.