The Beast’s Garden is a work of genius. Pure and simple. I could almost leave my review there, but I should probably explain myself.
I originally picked up this book because I am obsessed with Beauty and the Beast. I have a tattoo of Belle on my left shoulder. The Beast’s Garden‘s blurb describes the story as retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in Nazi Germany. How could I not buy a book with that description?
A little more about the blurb: it was quite clearly not written by the author. The blurb gives away a massive spoiler. Like, “way-to-ruin-the-twist-of-this-book” level spoiler. Still not entirely sure why they did that. It completely takes away from the surprise of finding out that Leo, the “Beast” in this story (an Abwher [the Nazi regime’s intelligence outfit] officer), is actually working on a plan to assassinate Hitler. Like, that should have been an “OMG!” moment, rather than something we know from the outset.
But this has nothing to do with the story. I just hate when people screw up the blurbs. It is incredibly irritating.
The actual story reminds me of an Italian film called La Vita é Bella or Life is Beautiful. It is set in WWII Italy and the story follows the same kind of structure as The Beast’s Garden. It starts out as a fairytale, with the protagonist falling head over heels for the love interest, as horrible things happen in the background. Well, maybe in the mid-ground. As the story progresses, the love story becomes a shining light in the darkness of the horrors of war.
Forsyth encapsulates the horrors of war with excruciating vividness. But not just from one perspective, but multiple. We get three main perspectives of the war effort. Ava’s (this story’s Belle), which shows how the upper echelon of Germany society rebelled against the Nazis; Jutta’s, which shows how the “free” (read: not killed or interred in a concentration camp) Jewish people rebelled against the Nazis; and Rupert’s, which shows the reader how he managed to survive in Buchenwald, one of the concentration camps.
The nice thing about Rupert’s perspective was that it shows a difference in his kind of rebellion compared to the other two. Both Ava and Jutta had to harden their hearts to do things to affect the Nazis. Rupert, however, had to keep his heart pure while he endured atrocities that no human being should have ever had to endure. Human kindness was Rupert’s way of rebelling. He also covers a perspective that is often left unexplored for this time period. Rupert was gay in the time of the Nazis. Now, this isn’t made into a huge deal. Ava accepts Rupert for who he is (Ava and Rupert and Jutta all grew up together), and always has. It’s not some big revelation, just an aspect of Rupert’s personality. Like the fact that he plays trumpet.
What Forsyth does so brilliantly, is make The Beauty and the Beast references more of a theme than a scaffold for the story. We get references to the fairy tale, which was Ava’s favourite as a girl, and then there’s the beautiful recurring setting of Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest inner-city park, and how that setting changes as the war progresses. There is also the recurring motif of roses.
The idea of Beauty and the Beast acts mainly as training wheels, until the story builds enough momentum to go on without that assistance.
I will say that I did not buy the Ava and Leo romance at the beginning of the novel. It was insta-love and I hate insta-love. They were telling each other secrets in a time where secrets could get you killed. But every time I scoffed at their conversations or meetings I compared them to my own experiences and, I guess, when you first meet someone with whom you feel an instant connection (not love, a connection), you tell them things that you probably wouldn’t tell anyone else. So I made my peace with their relationship. Especially given the fairy tale overtones.
Another amazing thing about The Beast’s Garden is that a huge percentage of the characters were actually real people. Not Ava and Leo and Rupert and Jutta, of course, but members of both Ava’s and Jutta’s resistance teams, as well as the Nazis that made an appearance, and Unity Mitford, the woman who killed herself over Hitler.
In order to understand just how detailed Forsyth’s research was, you must read the Afterword. A lot of the characters I took to be fictional turned out to be historical figures. And why did I think they were fictional? Because they were so unbelievably three dimensional, I felt for sure that they were Forsyth’s creations. It is so much harder to bring reality to life on paper than most people think.
One final note. Forsyth is an Australian author. An Australian author writing books not set in Australia. This is incredibly important to me, as a lot of Aussie authors shove their Aussie-ness down the reader’s throat. But not Forsyth. In fact, I didn’t know she was Aussie until I read her bio at the end of the book (which is where I found out that Forsyth had written a book called Bitter Greens, a novel modelled on the Rapunzel story and the women who created it. I will be buying that book ASAP, trust me).
The Beast’s Garden is amazing. Amazing story, theme, character, and historical detail. Although the romance starts out being unbelievable, I think this was Forsyth’s way of nodding to the story’s fairy tale origins.