“Bitter Greens” by Kate Forsyth

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Bitter Greens is my favourite kind of book. Historical fiction with just a teensy bit of magic thrown in for good measure. Which makes sense, seeing as Bitter Greens is both a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale that we grew up with, as well as the story of how the fairytale came to exist in the first place.

First of all, Margherita is never called Rapunzel in the book. Instead, she is called Petrosinella, or “Little Parsley”. For those of you who don’t know, rapunzel is actually one of the kinds of bitter greens (see, get it?) that the poor man steals for his pregnant wife in the fairytale. It’s how this particular fairytale heroine got her name. But in this book, she is instead called Little Parsley. Cool, huh?

I loved how Forsyth infused a well known story with the historical facts of the time. Plague, witch burnings, the court of the Sun King, the restrictions placed on women of any rank, and religious warfare. All of this was woven into the well known fabric of Rapunzel. I don’t really want to give you details, because these are the spoilers that matter. Suffice it to say that the historical nature of this book makes it so much easier to believe that Margherita (the inspiration for Rapunzel) was a real person. And why the wicked witch did what she did.

The magic of this book is snuck in. I really wasn’t expecting it, given the emphasis on religion and history in Bitter Greens. And how it was done was especially clever. Forsyth introduced her readers to witches. At this point in history, any clever medicine woman, or any woman who had done something to offend some powerful man, was usually accused of witchcraft at some point. So this is what Forsyth did: she introduced us to witches who were especially skilled with herbs. Only, the love potions and other such herbal concoctions actually worked, and this lovely detail kept me on my toes throughout the rest of the story. This also helped to make other kinds of magic easier to swallow. Say, for example, the silver ribbon that turned into a rope to allow Margherita to climb to her freedom.

Oh, and how Forsyth writes the Margherita-curing-her-lover’s-eyes-with-tears scene was amazing.

I loved the alternating POVs. We get Margherita’s; the evil witch who locked Margherita away, known as La Strega Bella; and Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s, the woman known for writing the first version of Rapunzel during her banishment to an abbey in 1698. Each of the stories feeds into the others and all tie together in a way that I should have seen coming a lot earlier than I did.

This is a brief review today for one reason: I feel like I would be diminishing the details of the story by trying to talk about them. Forsyth did a lot of research so that she could create the character of de la Force, and for me to talk about her characterisation, feels to me like I am somehow glossing over all of the amazing work that went into this novel. My advice to you is to read this book and, once finished, read the Afterword. It will show you just how much effort went into creating such vivid, historically accurate characters. Forsyth definitely knows how to immerse her readers in history.

★★★★ 1/2

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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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