karen has things to say

Reading, thinking, writing …


Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford – Review

Paperback, 294 pages
Published October 2016 by Allen & Unwin


I’ve read a lot about how this book is brave, polarising, important. I think it is all of these things. If I’d read it when I was thirty, I would have loved it. Clementine Ford’s outrage would have resonated with my own. Her use of sarcasm and humour would have been a life-saving leavening that saved my head from exploding, maybe hers too. After all, the picture she draws is breathtakingly dismaying. Still. Her extravagant use of foul language wouldn’t have blipped – its a perfectly legitimate way to manifest so much fury. And she’s funny. Anyway, I don’t require all activists to be cool-headed intellectual super-linguists like some folk seem to. Besides, that kind of iciness is the rightful reserve of the English (ok, kidding, don’t get lathered). Nor did I read this book because I wanted to be bathed in beautiful poetic language that made me sigh. I also wonder if her angry words haven’t drawn the very kind of approbation she’s refuting – it isn’t nice for a girl to be so gleefully foul-mouthed and such a girl should be shut up at once. If that’s the case, long may she offend.

However, I’m not thirty and I’ve heard it all before  – as many have pointed out, there’s not a lot of new thinking in this polemic. I don’t think that’s the point at all – I think she is bringing the SAME message – because it is sadly, sorely needed – to a new generation who probably aren’t going to read Gloria, Gertrude, Andrea, or even Naomi, unless they’re doing Women’s Studies or the like.  If that’s so, she’s bang on target – her sass, swearing and humour will reach a generation the old warriors won’t. The young things will love her savaging of Dudebros and That Guy, –  they will get it.  Especially in this regressive age of corporate patriarchy trying it’s damnedest to wipe out any and all opposition. Hers is a firebrand message, even if repeating the tenets, to light the darkness and good on her.

Clementine reveals a lot about her personal history – another point of identification  for young women in the Age of The Selfie, and her life story is sufficiently familiar to reach a LOT of women. I think this is the brave bit since it opens up every despicable charge you can imagine, from being mentally ill to being a fat loser. She’s heard it all, and whilst she may not be made of actual asbestos, she’s developed a pretty thick hide from constant exposure. That the diatribe aimed at her on a daily basis is mind-bogglingly vile pretty well proves her point.  She is brave to keep stepping up to the plate and taking it on the chin for the rest of woman kind. Even Jesus didn’t have to put up with that.

That she unapologetically points the finger at men we know – our husbands, brothers, fathers, friends – is the red rag to the dudebro-bull, but she’s right to do it. Misogyny is a problem for men to wrangle with, and they aren’t doing it enough. It’s hard to give up so much unearned privilege and power – kind of like how it’s hard for the first world to give up much of anything so the rest of the world can have enough. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be made to happen. Clemmy is a maker.

Therefore, this is an important book, and I’m going to give it to the young women I know. And if you haven’t, even if your ears burn a little, you should read it.


The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader – Review

“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” – Kierkegaard


The Anchoress

Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 1st 2015 by HarperCollins Australia (first published January 1st 2015)

ISBN    0732299217 (ISBN13: 9780732299217)

When I was a kid I used to wonder what it might be like if life was other than it was – say, what it might be like to be blind (I practiced being blind by doing things with my eyes closed), or what it might have been like to be a nun. I used to think I could handle being a nun if I was an olden times girl, not because I was particularly devout, but because it would be better than being married off to some gross old man with no teeth and cankers (not that I knew what a canker was). Besides, all that peace and quiet and solitude seemed pretty attractive as the only girl heading up four boys. I had plenty of non-negotiable ‘helping’ to do and I’d be free of it; it couldn’t be that hard, could it?

This childish imagining doesn’t seem a mile away from the reasoning of Sarah, our Anchoress in Cadwallader’s fine novel, set in a small village in medieval England. She’s only seventeen when she chooses a life of enclosure, a living death in a tiny stone cell that has been nailed shut on the outside, separating her forever from everyone else. She is between worlds, and her task is to intercede for this world and the nobleman (the vile Thomas) who pays for keep. Her days are forever devoted to prayer and her status as a ‘lover’ of Christ to whom she has pledged her virginity – if Cadwallader’s research is right, and I’m sure it is, the whole notion of ‘bride of Christ’ is oddly eroticised.  She is  to “keep the flesh in need” as a way to stay holy and resist temptations, and we see her struggle as she tries to ‘tame’ the forces of need; hunger, sensuality, craving touch, craving sunlight.  She has the recommended two maids to support her enclosure – Louise, an older one, chosen for her sobriety and wisdom, and Anna, a younger sturdy one to fetch and carry. Much of the story revolves around these three women. Anna is only a little younger than Sarah, and subject to the very forces of emerging womanhood both internal and external, that Sarah is avoiding. 

Initially, Sarah naively imagines the enclosure will be a kind of asylum from the concerns of the body and the emotions, a free pass from the daily stuff of the human condition. In reality, she sickens from brutal conditions, starvation (she calls it fasting) and lack of air and sunlight. I was struck by the almighty deprivation an anchoress, or anchorite, I suppose, must endure in this most extreme of devotions.

Cadwallader (what a fabulous name for a writer of historical fiction) gives us the lie on that notion. She shows us in the fine grain of Sarah’s story what life for an anchoress might have been like – the abnegation required, and to our modern eyes, the self delusion, not to mention communal delusion. An anchoress has a mighty weight of rules laid upon her, contained in a book called, appropriately, The Rule. It is a particularly sadistic and misogynistic little number, though in those days the assumption of woman’s nature as base and blameworthy was as ‘natural’ as the right of the village lord to reduce the circumstances of the people in his charge to something no better than slavery. No wonder the British had such a capacity for cruelty to other peoples – they’d had centuries of practice at home.

I digress.

Sarah knows she will have to be exceedingly pious, more so than anyone else including the various brothers, priests and bishops in charge of her care. She can speak only to women and her confessor priest, and whilst required to give counsel, is not allowed to engage with village life, not even in conversation (deemed gossip). Nothing like an impossible task to keep you awake at night.

Of course, she does become involved with her maids and the village, however tangentially – she learns every sound, which voice belongs to which person, and so on. Several women come to her regularly, and through them we get an idea of what their lives are like (hard). At first Sarah rejects and resents these intrusions on her holy devotion, but as she comes to grips with life, she becomes less judgemental about the needs and wants of the body and the heart. The child, Eleanor, is a particularly appealing character – not yet tamed by the requirements of her time, she asks fresh and innocent questions that underscore the mindset of medieval life. 

She has no counsel save her own mind, and there she is beset by doubt and the uniquely masochistic innerscape of a pious Christian woman in a patriarchal stronghold. We learn the story of St Margaret, revered for her refusal of worldly salvation in favour of eternal salvation – sounds noble, but the poor woman was most horribly tortured (by men, every one a god-fearing devotee of the church). Her salvation crosses into what looks like madness, but as was the nature of the times, people believed in magic or miracles.

This is what brings Sarah to her denouement – having stored all her faith and hope and fervent wish to help the stricken Anna in the myth/teaching of St Margaret, she is bitterly disappointed when it fails, experiencing a crisis of piety, or perhaps of mindless obedience:

“Don’t speak to me of pity or comfort, I’ve no use for that.” Her voice was deeper than usual. “Or prayer.”

“At a time like this, prayer is all we have, sister.”

‘Prayer? I prayed: for days, for weeks; I filled this cell with prayer. I prayed to St Margaret, I read her story to Anna, I gave her book to Louise to keep near Anna. I believed the promises, that she would help if we called on her, that God would listen to St Margaret’s prayers. All those promises in the book that you gave me, Father. All in your hand, letter after letter. I did everything I could and my prayers were as nothing.”

We, the modern reader, can see the superstition, the naivety, the ignorance suffered by Sarah. But in those times, the death of Anna and the failure of praying – all considered Sarah’s failures –  might be akin to our discovering we aren’t the cleverest species after all.

Cadwallader has given us a wonderfully evocative portrait of life in 1255, of the intimate relationship between grief, madness, faith and in the end, the strength of the drive for freedom. A freedom represented by a young Sarah’s impression of a boy flying, a boy she names Swallow. Ultimately, she finds a freedom, comes to a kind of flying of her own, cell, or no cell.

Having felt impatient with Sarah here and there as I read from my twenty-first century point of view and privilege, wanting her to think with a mind more her own, to make a decisive break for freedom from under the heel of patriarchy, I found the ending entirely satisfactory and entirely credible. I am left contemplating how much any of us is a creature of our time, and how different life is, and yet how much the human condition is the human condition, whether we live in a dank little cell or a high-rise apartment. Sarah is full and rounded and complex, and in the end, I liked her a lot. 

Robyn Cadwallader deserves all the acclaim she is garnering for this her first novel. It’s a good ‘un.


Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany – Review


Paperback, 208 pages
Published February 1st 2012 by PanMacmillan Australia (first published 2012)

Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, set in rural Australia, in the 1950’s, is a reflection on nature in it’s various expressions -birds, cows, dogs, people. I found it oddly difficult to stay with this book, and took a long time to read it. I’m not sure why, since whenever I did pick it up, I usually found it quite delicious. Perhaps it’s meditative or reflective nature, rather than a driving storyline made it easy to pick up something more compelling – anyway, I did finish it, and I’m glad I did.

The story begins with Harry bringing in his herd to the milking shed.We immediately know that Harry is a careful man, a still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow. We know he is a good man because his cows have names, affectionate names like Fatty, Licker, Stumbles, Wattle Flower. He knows them as individuals  and he knows them as a herd. Similarly, Harry has long observed a kookaburra family that share his territory and knows them intimately. They too have names – Mum, Dad, Club-Toe, Tiny, Bub. He knows a great deal about all sorts of natural things – his cows, the birds and the workings of his farm. His relationship to the natural world is deeply pragmatic and deeply loving – his journal of observations is poetic, a meditation on being part of the world.

Running in counterpoint to Harry’s closely observed natural world, is the closely observed world of people. The same rules apply – we live under the same sky, are soaked by the same rains, burned by the same sun, sleep under the same moon and are driven by the same desires – for love, family, belonging.  And dinner. Harry has a neighbour, Betty. Betty, a solo mum, has two children to different fathers, created in moments of young lust. It has been hard for Betty – as a girl she was “the bees knees, the cats meow”, her stern father’s favourite. She goes on a date with an older man and wonders “…how people resisted. How was it possible to resist?” It isn’t possible for Betty. She knows straight away it will not end well – “Later, in her bed, Betty remembered the man’s hands on her. She remembered stroking his fingers on the tram and she knew why she had told him the story of the black spaniel. A long-worn ring leaves the same braided indent on the skin after it has been removed as a collar. The mark isn’t visible to the eye, but gives itself up to touch.

Harry too, has been unfortunate in love. His thinks often of his former wife Edna, who ran off with Alec Gedge, President of the Bird Observers Club of Victoria, a fancier bird than Harry. He and Edna had started out well enough, but “There was no baby, month after month. And then, she didn’t like the farm. She said it wasn’t the farm she didn’t like, it was the shit. They were surrounded by shit. She could see it splattered across the paddocks out of every window of the house.”

Betty and Harry want to be together, but Harry, who knows such a great deal about the workings of all sorts of things, has no idea how to approach Betty. Longing and desire run between them, unnamed and unmet. They dance around each other being kind and helpful for years, building familiarity and a kind of loving. Harry becomes a father figure to Little Hazel and Michael, and Betty is glad of that, especially for Michael. “The pull between man and boy is much like that between man and dog. Soon Michael is at Harry’s most afternoons after school, and on weekends they go fishing together or rabbiting.” …”

Michael is changing as adolescence works it’s magic. Harry notices. When Michael becomes besotted by the buxom Dora, Harry, recalling his own youthful ignorance and young lust, tries to make it easier for Michael by sharing his knowledge of ‘the female sex’, gleaned over the years in the same carefully observant manner as everything else, including (hilariously) from close reading of Edna’s old women’s magazines. Harry isn’t good at expressing himself, and Michael is as awkward as he, so Harry decides it would be easier to write these things in letters to Michael. This thread in the story is lovely, a perfect balance of tenderness and pragmatism, explicit without being prurient:  Don’t go too easy with touch, Michael. Skin thickness will be different in different women. (Some udders are upholstered canvas, others in tissue paper) …. And cut your toenails Michael. When you are prostrate touch isn’t just about the hands. A foot can be used to stroke the lower limbs of the female.” Harry, for all his good-heartedness, does fall short, comparing women to cattle: “What of the rump and bosom?… Think of how we choose a milker at the sales – lean against her and see that she isn’t going to collapse.” – so, no wonder he has trouble with Betty, who isn’t as easy to push around as a cow. Except that in the end, thats exactly what he does, but we’ll get to that.

Through Harry we are given a lot of explicit observations about sex and ‘mating’ . Betty, being a woman in the fifties, has to be more covert about her interest and anyway, she lacks the confidence to be forthright. This, of course, makes it difficult for Harry to decipher what she wants.

When Betty finds one of Harry’s letters to Michael, she is outraged and furious and their relationship is threatened. Harry is distraught and waits and waits for a chance to explain. Eventually, the moment comes and Harry – at last – takes the step that moves their relationship from neighbours to lovers. This is where the story stops – the long and complicated mateship ritual has achieved it’s end, albeit somewhat in somewhat sudden and raw way. We can only hope they carry on and bring their tenderness into the bedroom as well.

There are plenty of secondary themes as well –  for example, the capacity of nature to throw up aberrant individuals is captured in the dark character of Mues, the retired slaughterman who attempts to molest Little Hazel, who kills for the sake of it, and who keeps an elderly ewe for nefarious sexual purposes. Perhaps the gist is that behaviour goes awry when basic needs aren’t met.

Tiffany writes in a way that is unsentimental, in fact her language is often stark and visceral and the novel is full of ‘piss’ and ‘shit’ and every other bodily emission you can think of. I kind of see Edna’s point. However, the sweetness of the heart is writ large and does rise above all that base biological stuff.

Tiffany’s writing is a bit like the Australian countryside – sparse and only by setting yourself down in it, can you see the beauty. I very much liked her characters – they are good people, living ordinary, quiet lives, and the myriad observations of the bits and pieces of life make it shimmer. The kindness in them is counterpointed by the brutality of nature – Tiny, the young kookaburra dies; the baby bird at Little Hazels school dies; little Hazel sees a dead bird with a broken leg caught in the daggy wool of a sheep; an owl freezes to death, a cow that fails to calf is fit only for the butcher. And so on. Life in the country is not a pastoral dream, but is comprised of endless cycles of relentless reality – birth, dinner, sex, death, on and on. It’s the kindness in the hearts of people that renders it bearable.


The Husband’s Secret – Review


ISBN: 1742612016 (ISBN13: 9781742612010)

First AWW Review for 2015!

The Husband’s Secret – Review

What is the worst thing that could happen to you? Setting aside climate change, nuclear holocaust and fatal pandemic (Emily St John Mandel has this last covered in Station Eleven) and focussing on the world of the personal and individual, might it be the loss of a child? Loss of a husband? Loss of life as you know it?

What if that happened to you?

These are the broad sweeping themes of “The Husband’s Secret”, explored via three female characters; Cecilia, Tess and Rachel. The exposure of the big secret happens when Cecelia accidentally discovers a letter addressed to her, from her husband, John-Paul, to be opened in the event of his death. Her first dilemma – to open or not to open it? Would you? When Cecelia mentions the letter to the handsome husband, the cream-of-the-crop husband, his reaction is peculiar – he flips it off as a piece of long ago melodramatic silliness – she knows he’s lying.

Meanwhile, Melbourne based, self-diagnosed socially-anxious Tess discovers her husband is having an affair with her cousin Felicity – Felicity, with whom she has been joined at the hip since childhood and who is the fourth person in the family, the third person in the business with she and husband Will. So, devastated, Tess goes home to mum in Sydney and thereby enters the arena where the story unfolds.

The third woman, Rachel, more or less runs the primary school that Cecelia and Tess attended as children, and Cecilia’s three girls attend now and where Tess’ son Liam will attend while Tess sorts thing out. Rachel, a generation older, once had a daughter too, her precious Janie, who was murdered at the age of seventeen. The murderer was never caught and Rachel has never recovered. She suspects that the murderer was Connor Whitby (who ‘had lies in his eyes’; lovely phrase) — an old boyfriend of Tess’ and more recently a teacher in the school … and who Cecelia’s little girl, Polly has a crush on.

And thus the interlinking circumstances are set up for the truth about Janie’s death to unfold as the story unfolds at a spanking pace (mostly). I was glad of that, having had to overcome something of a prejudice about ‘chick lit’ to get this book off last years AWW personal reading list.

I don’t really know what ‘chick lit’ means’, though presumably the concentration on the domestic scenario and the internality of much of what gives the depth to the characters has something to do with it. There were a (quite) a few laugh out loud bits, for example, Cecilia, puzzling about ‘the sex thing’ having mysteriously faded between her and Jean-Paul, wonders about Father Joe – how could he choose celibacy in this day and age? Did he masturbate? Was he allowed to? … and other such questions people really ask, if only in their own minds. Speculating about what might be wrong, she wonders about John-Paul (although I think being named after a Pope would be enough to kill any mans libido) –

“Perhaps he was gay.That’s why he’d gone off sex. He’d been faking his heterosexuality all these years. Well, he’d certainly done a good job of it. She thought back to the early years when they used to have sex three or four times in one day. That would really have been above and beyond the call of duty if he was only faking his interest.

He quite enjoyed musicals. He loved Cats! And he was better at doing the girls’ hair than her. Whenever Polly had ballet concert she insisted John-Paul be the one to put her hair in a bun. He could talk arabesques and pirouettes with Polly as wells he could talk soccer with Isabel, and the Titanic with Esther. Also, he adored his mother. Weren’t gay men particularly close to their mothers? Or was that a myth?

He owned an apricot polo shirt, and ironed it himself.

Yes, he was probably gay.”

It’s exactly the kind of irrational internal dialogue we all know so well, and Moriarty has interspersed this scene with sharp observation of sexism, ageing and coming of age, all with a wonderfully deft hand and light touch.

Apparently Moriarty is well known for her humour and lightness, both in full throttle in this book. It’s easy to miss the depth of observation of the human condition, the life of ordinary women. The humour also interferes with, to some degree, full engagement with the dark themes of this book, the most dominant of which is loss. It’s a tricky balance, but for the most part she pulls it off. The repeating ‘what if’ questions helps her do it, inviting the reader to stand in the shoes of the character, or speculate what it might be like to wrangle with the very difficult things encountered. Here Moriarty is unsparing and we are saved from despair or depression by a well timed comical intervention. I’m ambivalent about whether I liked this or not since it robs the heft of the story of it’s potential gravitas, but since life is short, lets be generous and say it’s a good thing.

The setting is in a Catholic community; I took this to be a comment on the effect of belief and faith; on the down side, fervent belief (like Rachel’s unshakeable conviction about Connor) can lead to failing to see what is right in front of you, or seeing what isn’t really there. On the upside, it creates community (the school and it’s community), creativity and belonging. And this is what gets us through. No judgement is passed; it is as it is.

And, right at the end, Moriarty takes us down another what-if path that neatly turns the whole thing on it’s head. Brilliant. 

1 Comment

Review – Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor

Indelible Ink

       Paperback, 452 pages
       Published August 1st 2010 by Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. (first published May        31st 2010)


Indelible Ink

The front cover of this book proclaimed it  ‘The Age Book Of The Year’ – in 2011; I’m catching up on a whole swag of AWWs I’ve never come across until I picked up this challenge. So, although I hadn’t heard of it, I opened it with considerable anticipation. That was back in January. I picked up and set down the book a number of times, only managing to get to page 90 or so by July, but I finally got it finished about a week ago. To be fair to the book, I had an intense first half to the year, closing my practice and moving interstate; reading about a woman whose life undergoes radical change in every dimension may not have been the wisest choice. I should note that after things settled a bit in my own life, I read the rest of it without much trouble.

The story is woven from several threads and organised into three sections; Ink, Blood and Water – these may reflect the themes of identity, change,and  discovery

Ink –   this section explores identity and belonging, that which is inscribed upon us or printed into us, as seen through the lens of 59 year old Marie King, a conservative, over-practised people pleaser, unwillingly single after a long and unsatisfactory marriage. She has to sell the house that represents everything defining her – marriage, children, garden. It also means deciding where she wants to be, which means thinking about who she is – and there’s the rub.

Blood – relates to a second major thread, that of change – how we know ourselves and how we react to losing the familiar. It is explored through the thread of the tattoo motif and the fate that befalls Marie.

Water – discovery, the third thread. What lies beyond the familiar, and what lies within or perhaps beyond our known self, as we negotiate that which life so relentlessly dishes up.

Marie lives on the North Shore of Sydney in a great big house with a great big – and beloved – garden. Her rotten, domineering husband has finally left her. In the settlement he got the business and whatever else, she got the house.  She’s always been a drinker, but her new found freedom allows her to overindulge to the point of self-destructiveness and shameful behaviour. After one such incident where a drunken Marie, shopping with her friend Susan, disgraces herself in a shop, we get this perfect description of the cast iron rules of engagement in Marie’s social circles:

“Marie walked down the path beside Susan, trowel and pots in hand. She was debating with herself whether to apologise for vomiting in the homewares shop. When Susan had arranged to come and get plants, she hadn’t mentioned it, but plenty of things were never mentioned let alone apologised for.”

One night, drunk and feeling defiant in her newfound freedom, and with a neat reversal of the usual direction of envy, Marie decides she can get a tattoo if she wants to – and does. Thus begins a whole new adventure into questions of identity, belonging, societal mores and the like. She meets Rhys, the lesbian tattoo artist and perhaps most likeable character in the book (or maybe that was Brian, the ex-con). Of course, Marie’s kith and kin are scandalised, allowing plenty of opportunity to explore family dynamics, the individual versus culture and subculture. Marie is on her first date in decades, and her beau spies her tattoos:

I’m sorry Marie. I have trouble understanding why people do these things to themselves.’

‘I love my tattoos’

‘You’ve got more?’

‘Yes, four.’

Marie felt like a blemish on these tasteful furnishings. the mushroom walls, scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, Egyptian cotton sheets. The long wooden body beside her, legs crossed at the ankles. She felt humiliated, and in the slipstream of this humiliation began to grow a brittle defiance.

Davids voice came thin and small ‘Can I see them?’

Marie didn’t really want David to see the tattoos now his unease was so evident. She didn’t want to be judged or feared, but she had offered him her body and the tattoos were a part of that, so she didn’t feel able or even willing to take them away. David stared, reaching out to touch. As he moved, the sheet fell away. He tried to hide his erection.

‘Well,’ Marie quipped, ‘they can’t be that bad,’ thinking what a nice dick he had, angry with him now, angry with herself for thinking yet another compliment, … ”

Marie’s struggles with finding her own sense of agency, especially as her health destabilises, and it’s easy to feel sympathy for her as she struggles along.  The rest of the cast is another matter. I couldn’t manage to like most of the characters for the first fifty percent or so of the book. Neither did I hate them. I just didn’t feel much at all, other than they were all terrifically self-centred. Also – the dilemma of poor old Marie having to sell the house, at enormous profit (to pay off her escalating debts), didn’t seem like such a terrible crisis – a fall from high society, yes, and I did understand this was supposed to be the loss of everything by which Marie identifies herself, but the air in the upper echelons of Sydney society seemed so thin and cold, it didn’t feel like a terrible calamity. In the passages where Marie contemplates the loss of her garden I had more sympathy – there are many such passages and the Sydney landscape in the grip of a hot, impossible summer, laying waste to the garden whilst every one fails to understand the ramifications because they are too busy complaining, is very well drawn. Marie’s life is being just as severely ‘burned’ and the spectre of death hovers. 

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the characters, there is a kind of alchemy in the book. By the end of it I had warmed to every character, despite the unpromising beginnings. Fiona McGregor has a sharp, keen eye for place and physical character and although I don’t know Sydney well at all, I’m willing to bet she has captured the feel of Mosman and Surrey Hills and their denizens perfectly. There is one incisive comment after another about society, the state of the environment, the city, the neuroses of ordinary everyday folk like thee and me. Having initially thought she didn’t like her own characters, I came to see she just doesn’t  judge them. Rich or poor, sensitive or stupid, well behaved or atrociously behaved – she just lays it out before us and lets us discover our own prejudices in our reactions to them.

I loved the last section, and the ending – unsentimental as it is, it seems right on the money as a final comment on whether or not we are a product of what we come from, our place, be that physical, cultural, psychological – or not.

Indelible? Maybe. Maybe not.


Bitter Greens – Review

Review:  Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens

Bitter Greens (Paperback)

  Published March 20th 2012 by Vintage Australia
  Paperback, 576 pages
  ISBN: 174166845X  (ISBN13: 9781741668452)

I noticed this book because it is a reworking of the fairy tale Rapunzel and I’m interested in the power of fairy tales. So, I acquired a copy and began to read. When I got the first sexy bit, the “golden explosion” (p 54) had me worried, but the calibre of the writing is such that my fears of it being a lame old bodice ripper were soon put away. There is plenty of sex, but thankfully no steely blue eyes or quivering thighs amongst it pages. Kate Forsyth’s writing is good, sometimes lyrical, always lively and smooth in the telling of this tale of dark and difficult times. There is a good deal of terrible deeds, so it’s definitely not for children, and definitely not for the squeamish. It would make a terrific movie (providing Disney didn’t do it. Tangled, it is not.)

I think this book will please those who like historical fiction, fantasy, and probably romance too, so I’d like to have included it in all three categories for the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, but I can choose only one, so historical fiction it is. 

The story centres around three characters – first we meet Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force,  a real person who lived from 1654-1724, and who wrote a version of Rapunzel named Le Persinette – “Little Parsley” –  in 1698. The Brothers Grimm later adapted it to become the tale we all know as Rapunzel. This book opens with Charlotte Rose having been banished to a nunnery, the Abbey de Gercy-en-Brie, a fate worse than death as far as she is concerned. She has drawn the displeasure of the Sun King, Louis XIV in whose court she has had a place in one role or another since she was sixteen, and where she learns that the King’s favour or lack of it makes the difference between life and death, and your friends change with his moods. She is in her late thirties by the time we meet her and despairing of ever finding security, i.e. a husband. Actually, she did find a husband, but you couldn’t marry whoever you liked in those days, and the families have the marriage annulled. It seems that in those good old days hie thee to the nunnery was a threat to be taken very seriously; it was imprisonment by any other name, and status and wealth provided no immunity and there was no means of escape, but the alternative was death or having to leave the country, if flight was possible or feasible. 

There is, as one might expect, a mean old nun who specialises in sadistic treatment of those under her authority, so Charlotte Rose has a miserable time for a while. She meets Soeur Seraphina, a calm and somewhat set apart nun, and we know straight away this woman will be important to the newly arrived Charlotte Rose. We don’t get to meet her again for some time, until eventually Sr Seraphina arranges for her to assist in the garden. There, she tells Charlotte Rose the tale of Margherita, a Venetian girl from a century earlier who is the Rapunzel proper of the story. Three versions of the fairy tale – Le Persinette by Charlotte Rose, Petrosinella (by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634) and Rapunzel (by the Bros Grimm, published in 1812)  – are woven together filled out, filled in and brought to life all over again by Kate Forsyth. Each of the three fairytales relates in some way to one of the three women – Charlotte Rose who writes the tale; Maria who is given the new, powerful name of Selena Leonelli when taken in by a witch, and who later becomes La Strega Bella (beautiful witch); and of course, Margherita or Petrosinella or Persinette or Rapunzel. In this version all three have long red or gold hair and they are all Rapunzels in their different ways, imprisoned by fate, culture, gender and general powerlessness excepting their one gift, be it words, magic or voice. All three are strong and fiery too – so, of course they get out of their towers, though not without a good measure of suffering, pain and loss. 

We also get a lot of history – of the Sun King and life at his court; the politics and culture of the time and the trials and tribulations of being a woman in those times. As is usually the case when I read historical fiction, I end up feeling fortunate to be alive now, in Australia, in a relatively gender equal culture (I know, I know, we aren’t there yet, but compared to then, I’ll have now!). The Sun King comes across as a massively self-indulgent, casually cruel, narcissistic monster, and the jostlings and backstabbings of the court make my head spin.  I guess our current day version might be celebrity culture (I Want To Marry Harry comes to mind), where the same jockeying for fame and fortune goes on, just with fewer clothes and more surgery. Which brings me to the observation that I love the details of life-back-then – how the placement of patches or ‘beauty spots’ meant particular things, the height of the heels of one’s chopines were socially delineated (richer = higher), one had to bring one’s own chamber pot to royal events, and the fragility of the all important social standing according to the grace and favours of those in power and so on. It brings the whole tale to vivid life, and renders it believable. 

Which is pretty good going given the historically accurate details of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force’s life, Louis XIV, the history relating to court life, political machinations, religious persecutions and so on are nestled in a rich brew of conjecture and even better, within straight up fantasy – La Strega Bella has some pretty witchy powers that are not explained away or recast as clever medicinal knowledge or whatever. It’s magic, and its part of the fairy tale that is  woven through the stories of the three characters with equal weight to the ‘facts’. This story also has the very best explanation ever of how the famous braid comes to be – as a kid I always wondered why Rapunzel was locked away, and how her hair got to be so ridiculously long. Now, I know. 

I loved the backstory to La Strega Bella – even the wicked witch gets a fair hearing in this tale, and it’s entirely believable that someone who came from such harsh and traumatic a background as Maria would be a little … affected, and wish for a power so great that fear is held at bay. But, as we all know, we don’t always get what we want, and even she learns a thing or two along the way.

Kate Forsyth has let down Rapunzel’s hair for us; we all get to climb into the tower to have a good look at what’s up there and to see what it’s like to be there, to feel the longing, the despair, the thrill of escape, the cleverness of these women. The story has an ending that is very satisfactory – it’s true to the Rapunzel tale as we know it, but told in a way that is rich and ‘real’. We know what happens to Rapunzel; in this telling La Strega Bella and Charlotte Rose are left with the consequences of their actions, but not without hope, and ultimately – they are survivors. 

That’s a good ending!