Monday, August 31, 2015

THE BEAST'S GARDEN by Kate Forsyth (A Review)


Kate Forsyth
Random House Australia, August 3rd 2015
eBook, 512 pages
Historical Fiction, Fairytale Retelling, Romance, WWII

Kate Forsyth is not new to the fascinating world of fairytale re-tellings.  In Bitter Greens (read my review), she unraveled the allegorical threads of a traditional folktale, better known to most of us as 'Rapunzel', she bared it down to its archetypal simplicity, and on that thematic structure she spun her own riveting story. In her latest re-telling, The Beast's Garden, Forsyth reaches a new high : Ava and Leo's tale of courage and love, "even when all hope is gone", is wildly romantic and utterly suspenseful.

The stage scene is a World War II Berlin, at that time when Germany seemed to be in the grip of a collective madness. The fairytale chosen by the author as inspiration for her story is 'Beauty and the Beast', not the most popular version written in 1756 by the French novelist de Beaumont, but rather the German variant, 'The Singing, Springing Lark', collected by the Brothers Grimm in the second volume of the 'Children's and Household Tales' (1819). The Grimms' rendition of Beauty and The Beast tells the story of a daughter who marries a beast (a lion) in order to save her father, but to that well-known motif the German writers added the search for the lost husband. In The Singing, Springing Lark, in fact, 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 for seven years and when she loses the trail, she seeks help from the moon, the sun, and the four winds. Eventually, she will save her husband battling the enchantress who turned him into a beast and the spell will be broken.

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In Kate Forsyth's historical novel, a young woman (Ava) marries a Nazi officer (Leo) in order to save her father, a professor who has been unjustly accused of subversive activities and is doomed to sure death in a concentration camp. Ava hates and fears her new husband, but she gradually comes to realize that he is a good man at heart and part of the Red Orchestra, the German underground resistance movement that aimed to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi party.

Leo von Lowenstein and Ava Falkenhorst met in the dark under the winter-bare trees, the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world and the Jewish persecution began - that  night of furious clamor and destruction fatefully brought them together, but the distance between their backgrounds couldn't  have been bigger.

Ava is the beautiful nineteen year old daughter of a kind natured professor and friend of the Jews; Leo is a high-bread aristocratic  officer of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence.

Ava is dark haired and olive skinned, hardly an Aryan specimen; Leo has fair hair and eyes of a blue as pale as the winter frost. Tall and athletic - if it wasn't for the crooked line of his nose, his face would be the very ideal of masculine beauty.

To Leo, Ava is an exotic flower, "the only beautiful, true thing in a world of ugliness and lies". Mistakengly, Ava thinks that Leo is just like any other German officer, a war-mongering hawk with blood on his claws.

Ava, a gifted singer, frequently joins the Hot Club, a secret group of jazz lovers and swing dancers, mainly Jewish and Mischlings. Listening to jazz and swing was banned at the time as if it was some kind of disease. She loves Hollywood movies and Billie Holiday's raspy voice. Her favorite reads are fairytales and her father's philosophical disquisitions.

Of aristocratic descent, Leo's family owns a castle in Bavaria. His life has been mapped out for him since birth. The von Lowensteins live to serve Germany, with faithfulness unto death. Leo cannot choose desire over duty.

Despite the disparity of lineage and upbringing, despite the dangerous clash of their respective affiliations, the chemistry between these two brave souls is palpable and undeniable. No matter how ardently Ava tries to avoid the intensity of his regard, their destinies and the fate of an entire country are intrinsically intertwined. While the world seems to be irreparably entranced by the imperialistic ambitions of a mad man, Leo's love for Ava will cause a monumental shift in his loyalty to the Third Reich and its Fuhrer.  Leo is not what she expected and feared: he's actually part of a conspiracy to stop the insane carnage of Jewish and German lives. Ava's realization comes too late. She has unwittingly exposed Leo's role in the conspiracy, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Beast's Garden brims with climactic scenes of spine-tingling suspense and heartwarming romance. The historical references to the ethnic cleansing enforced by the Nazi regime resonate with chilling authenticity and do not spare the crudest descriptions of the labor camps' atrocities: they do serve as a powerful foil of human devastation against Leo's and Ava's heartrending love story. A shining addition to the wartime romance genre.

My rating: 5 stars

***Review e-copy graciously provided by the author via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased and honest review.


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