The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fairy Tale Retelling
The Beast’s Garden is basically a fairy tale retelling set in Nazi Germany. It’s based on “The Singing, Springing Lark,” which itself is similar to “Beauty and the Beast.” Fairy tale retellings might be my absolute favorite sort of book, and every time I find one, I can’t help but read it. “Beauty and the Beast” is my favorite fairy tale and I’ve read several retellings of it, but this one was definitely a standout. A quick note: this book is (as far as I can tell) only available in audio version in the U.S. I have no clue when it will be published as an e-book or hard copy, but I listened to the audio version and really loved it! I think I would have butchered the German pronunciations, so I’m glad I had a narrator who knew what she was doing.
I really loved pretty much everything about this book. From the Afterword, I discovered that many of the characters and events are based on things that were real, and that made me like it even more. Forsyth must have done a ton of research because at times, I really felt like I was transported to Nazi Germany (not that that’s a place I really ever want to be).
I enjoyed the way that the elements of B&tB were worked into the story. If you aren’t looking for them, they aren’t obvious, so even if you don’t love retellings, you might like this if you like World War II fiction. That said, when you do know they’re there, the original plot elements woven with the story here are really unique interpretations. For example (and this is a mild spoiler, but it’s also in the official synopsis of the book), in order to save her father from deportation or worse, Ava has to marry Leo, a Nazi officer. The way this comes about makes sense in any reading of the story, fairy tale-inspired or not, but it’s a very clear parallel to Beauty going to live with the Beast after her father steals a rose.
One thing that was really surprising to me was that Ava’s family was so divided. I wonder how real families at the time dealt with ideological differences — it’s not something I’ve ever thought about. I don’t want to spoil the book, but I have to say that I really appreciated the way that her family was portrayed. It would have been easy to go a different route, especially with a B&tB retelling, but it felt like a realistic family to me. None of the characters is all good or all bad, and I appreciated that.
For a while, I had trouble seeing how Ava could bear to be married to Leo, but he grew on me after a while. That said, I have no idea what he did behind the scenes or whether he had to commit crimes for his job. But even with that possibility, I still wanted him to come out okay in the end.
The ending for me was both unexpected and predictable at the same time, and that’s maybe the only time when I felt that the two genres (historical and retelling) clashed a little. Fairy tales usually have happy endings (though, in the case of Grimm’s fairy tales, usually also gruesome), but not many people saw happy endings in Nazi Germany. I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions as this author when it came to the ending, but as a reader, I found the ending satisfying.
It’s hard to say too many good things about this book. I loved listening to it and definitely recommend it, in particular the audio version, narrated by Jennifer Vuletic. I think I got more out of this book through listening to it than I would have if I’d read it traditionally. I gave this book five stars and will be adding it to my list of favorites for this year.