Published by Random House Australia on August 3rd 2015
Genres: Fairytale Retelling, Historical Fiction
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A retelling of The Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany
The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark' in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,' the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.
Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.
The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.
The Beast's Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.
You can listen to an interview with Kate Forsyth, talking about The Beast’s Garden in episode 32 of Tea in the Treetops podcast!
The Beast’s Garden is a retelling of the Grimm’s The Singing Springing Lark, an early (and more complicated) version of the much loved Beauty and the Beast. I loved Kate Forsyth’s earlier fairytale stories, Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, but with this one set in Berlin between 1938 and 1945, I knew I was in for some heartbreak. While the heartbreak is certainly there, there’s also plenty of hope, of love, resistance and refusing to stand by while atrocities occur.
Kate says in her afterword that only the main characters are fictional – that the events depicted in the story and many of the characters encountered were real people of the era. This story really opened my eyes to the ways many people in Berlin resisted and disagreed with the treatment of the Jews and other persecuted groups, and that there were people, even within the Reich itself that actively worked against Hitler and made several attempts on his life. Stories about this period of history tend to terrify me in general, mainly with the idea that people can be so horrible to each other, and that the mass-brainwashing of a huge number of people was so successful. Scary stuff.
I’m not particularly familiar with the Singing Springing Lark as a story, and this didn’t really feel at all like a Beauty and the Beast retelling to me. I really wasn’t a fan of the insta-love aspect, and seriously, Leo, “I am so madly in lust with you,” is the worst pick-up line in the history of ever. Maybe it sounds sexier in German, I don’t know, but I nearly put the book down and ran after that one! But I’m glad I persevered because Leo and Ava’s relationship is really one of the strengths of this story.
The Beast’s Garden emphasises the similarities between Berliners, as well as the differences. Ava’s and Rupert’s fathers are old friends and their families remarkably similar, but as the persecution begins it is really heartbreaking to see them suffering, along with all the other Jewish families. I felt the delicate issues around the atrocities of the era were sensitively handled, although I am no expert on the events or the current protocol for dealing with them. There are certainly no holds barred in the descriptions of the cruelty and humiliation the characters witness in the labour camps, but it is certainly part of the story and never feels gratuitous.
I’m not sure the fairytale retelling was a great idea for this story – I did feel that the it might have been better written as a pure historical fiction rather than a reasonably strict retelling. It probably wouldn’t have had such a happily-ever-after ending, but those were kind of few and far between back then anyway. Either way, Kate Forsyth’s brilliant writing shines through and makes this story really special. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I loved Bitter Greens or The Wild Girl, but it certainly had me reading way past my bedtime.