Kate Forsyth is well known for her conventional fantasy novels – particularly for the Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride series. She’s also a poet, an author of several children’s fantasy books and a non-genre novelist under the name Kate Humphrey.
With Bitter Greens, she combines fantasy, legend, fairytale and historical fiction into an entirely fascinating cross-genre literary work. The fantasy book I can think of closest to Bitter Greens is Sherri S Tepper’s Beauty, that conflated the stories of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and the Frog Prince (with passing references to Rapunzel) and placed them in a (rather polemical) feminist story of time-travel and dystopia.
Forsyth does more with Bitter Greens. She grounds the fantasy, legend and fairytale in actual history and interweaves the elements so skilfully that it is hard to see where the distinctions are. In Bitter Greens there are also elements of the sort of magical realism that remind the reader of Angela Carter: the contemporary literary reinterpretation of fairytale; the assumption of magical events and people as being integral to a real historical world, and characters who live for several life spans and influence several generations.
Basically Bitter Greens takes three stories and entwines them: the fairytale Rapunzel (here Petrosinella); the story of Titian’s putative mistress and model, the courtesan Selena Leonelli; and the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a historically real character from Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, who first wrote the version of Rapunzel (‘Persinette’) we are familiar with.
The retelling of Rapunzel is metaphorical and magical. Charlotte, exiled to a convent for annoying the Sun King, is befriended by an elderly nun, Sœur Seraphina. To cheer her up as they work in Seraphina’s garden, the nun tells Charlotte the true story of a young girl who, 100 years ago, was sold by her parents to a witch (La Strega Bella, also known as Selena Leonelli) for a handful of bitter herbs. The girl, Margherita, was renamed Petrosinella (‘little parsley’) by the witch and eventually taken to a tower on a remote rock and locked up. She was not the witch’s first victim – other girls perished there while La Strega worked the black magic she needed for eternal life. But a young man finds Margherita and she is the first to escape to find love and a fulfilled life. Although Sœur Seraphina is the outside narrator of this strand, it is told from the protagonists’ points of view, one of the stories within stories of the novel:
There was no use trying to escape through the window. No one could survive such a fall. Far, far below, the lake glimmered silver at the base of the immense stony mountains, which seemed to rise straight into the air. Margherita could see a few dark columns of cypress trees and further away, down the valley, the dark mass of a forest. Most frightening of all, there was no door and no stair. The only way in or out was the narrow window, and only an eagle could fly so high.
There must be a way out! Margherita told herself, trying not to panic. Just wait and watch.
The second strand is imagined from Titian’s paintings, extrapolated from his life and his known models and mistresses, and also contains the magical – the famous model here becomes the witch, La Strega Bella, still young and fascinating 60 years after she was first painted. This narrative both encompasses and generates the story of Petrosinella as it moves from the salons of 16th-century Venice to the bleak and hostile rock where the witch keeps her young prisoner. Selina is rich, beautiful and at the centre of Venetian artistic society, but she hides a gruesome secret:
When nine drops had fallen, she drew Margherita’s wrist to her mouth and gently sucked on the wound, stemming the flow … La Strega lifted the silver goblet to her mouth, her eyes fixed on the portrait of herself hanging at the foot of the bath, and drank a mouthful. ‘I shall not pay the apple’s price, relinquishing beauty to be wise,’ she chanted. Another gulp, and she went on, ‘I shall not fade like the petals of the rose, surrendering to the winter’s frost.’
With one last mouthful, she drained the goblet dry. ‘Bring to me the face I see, so I shall stay as fair as ever.’
The third strand appears to be meticulously researched history, recording events in the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, taking the story from Renaissance Italy to the French court at Versailles. This outside level of story is the least magical, on the surface, as Charlotte gradually finds comfort and redemption in the friendship of the older nun and in her fascination for the story of Petrosinella, which she will eventually record as a fairytale, although we come to realise that the story is more than that, and that Charlotte, too, has been caught up in the narrative’s magical web.
Bitter Greens is beautifully written. Imaginative, detailed research is artfully blended with originality of story and character and the richly complex narrative takes readers into an utterly convincing world, where magic seems not only possible, but necessary, in the gaps left by ‘real’ history. Moving surely and smoothly in and out of third and first-person narration, weaving levels of story inside story, the novel is like Petrosinella’s hair, intricately and sinuously alive, slippery and multi-layered, yet bound and orderly:
Yesterday, it had been long enough for her to sit on. Today, it was so long that twenty little girls could have laid head to toe on it and still not reached the end. Slowly, she began to realise that the hair was not all the same colour. Some of the tresses were more red than gold, some more gold than red. Some hung in tight twists and ringlets, some were smooth and silky, and others formed loose curls. Each flowed and coiled into the next, like a river that ran one moment in quick rapids, then fell in a foaming roar, before winding in lazy loops into a tranquil pool.
Bitter Greens is one of those rare and delightful books that transcends genre, truly original in scope and invention and showing a writer in mature and full command of her material.
Kate Forsyth Bitter Greens, Vintage, 2012, PB, 554 pp, $32.95
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