The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
Vintage Books 2015
Large Format Paperback
Historical Fiction; Fairy Tale Retelling
The Beast’s Garden is set in Berlin from late 1938 until just after the end of the war. A loose retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Singing, Springing Lark” (itself a variant of the more well-known “The Beauty and the Beast”), the combination of setting and love story makes for an often tense, harrowing reading experience. The main protagonist, Ava Falkenhorst, is a native Berliner, her father a German psychoanalyst and professor, her mother a Spanish singer who died giving birth. She has two older half-sisters, Bertha and Monika, but she was raised by her mother’s best friend, Tante Thea, whose son Rupert was born within hours of Ava. Both Ava and Rupert are musicians, Rupert playing trumpet and piano, Ava singing in a low contralto. Their favourite music is jazz and blues – Billie Holiday and other American artists – and the world seems bright and full of promise, and not even the rise of Hitler is taken all that seriously in Ava’s artistic, well-educated circle.
Then, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the Night of Broken Glass, when her friend’s family is harassed, their apartment destroyed, and they are forced to leave, taking shelter in Ava’s family home. It seems, to Ava, like the whole world has suddenly gone mad. It is also on Crystal Night that she meets a young Nazi officer, Leo von Löwenstein, who draws her as a man but repels her as representative of all she considers wrong in Germany. But when her father is arrested for sending letters to warn influential people in other countries about what is happening in Germany, Ava’s only recourse is to turn to Leo for help, no matter the cost.
This sets up the remainder of the story, and for a book that lasts the duration of World War II, there’s a lot more that happens. Forsyth’s Berlin is carefully, authentically recreated, from the glorious old buildings – many commandeered by the Nazis – and Tiergarten (or “Beast’s Garden”), to the rubble and ruin it is all reduced to in the air raids. That juxtaposition of glory, grandeur and beauty against the destruction of war is painfully poignant and all too tragic. Knowing, as you do when you start reading, how the war ends, how Hitler survives to the end, and what happens to the political prisoners, the homosexuals, the disabled and the Jews, not to mention neighbouring nations, there were times when this knowledge aided the tense, frightening atmosphere, yet it also made me fear for an unhappy ending for Ava and Leo.
While Ava’s perspective dominates, brief scenes from Rupert’s point of view within Buchenwald concentration camp – and, later, a few from Leo and Rupert’s sister Jutta – flesh out and enhance the narrative while also providing that harrowing, intimate view of the inside of a concentration camp. You only need these scenes to be brief – longer and the impact would be lost – but it also serves to show that side of the war within Germany. Everything in the story takes place within that nation, mostly in Berlin, and the contrasts between the abject poverty, homelessness and violence endured by the Jews, the gypsies and even many Germans, and the opulent wealth and excessive luxuries enjoyed by the upper class, particularly the Nazi elite, is sickening. So, too, is the waste of human life, the mass exterminations and the sheer cruelty shown to people the Nazis called “sub-human”.
Early on, Ava reads her niece – Bertha’s young daughter – the fairy tale “The Singing, Springing Lark” and remembers her father reading it to her. When he first asked her what she thought it was about, she told him it was about never giving up. Later, she told him it was about being brave, and when she was older she thought it was about true love. This captures the essence of The Beast’s Garden well: it is definitely about never giving up, about being brave and about true love, and makes you ponder the idea that these must surely be some of the most important things in life. You could add, though, that it is also about being compassionate (caring for and about others) and about standing up for what is right (which, granted, looks different to different people).
That last one is tricky, because from Hitler’s perspective, he was doing what was right – just as Donald Trump (who has often been compared to Hitler, including by Holocaust survivors) also believes in what he is standing up for (or, at least, his supporters do – I’m never entirely sure whether Trump believes anything he says or is just too far-gone in the well of Spin). Forsyth provides balanced insights into the ideological and psychological aspects of Germany’s people at this time, presenting the different attitudes and showing just how lacking in unity they really were. A great many of the characters in the novel, according to Forsyth’s very interesting Afterword, were real people involved in the underground resistance movement. I knew of the White Rose already, from using the film Sophie Scholl in one of my English classes a couple of years ago, and I have long been curious about the German perspective and what else was going on. The French Resistance is well-known, but the German one has long fallen into obscurity – which is a shame. Ava is representative of the many who helped shelter and help Jews, and wanted to stop the war, though they were indeed too few to do all that much against the well-oiled Nazi machine. The obstacles, the price of resistance, the despair and the horror are all captured by Forsyth – she has done a wonderful job of humanising the Germans (even those who supported the Nazis) as well as the Jews, and creating a true ethical and moral crisis. It’s this aspect of the story that really gives it depth, clarity and realism.
While I was worried, at first, that Ava’s character seemed a little too similar to cliched heroines that I’ve read before, and that the romance would devolve into formulaic lines, I was pleased (and relieved) when it shifted to focus more on the war, on resisting the Nazis and trying to save their loved ones. The Ava and Leo relationship becomes an anchor throughout, a smoldering, banked fire simply waiting for peace in order to shine to its fullest extent. It is this ‘true love’ they feel for each other – and the love and loyalty that so many other characters show for each other – that emphasises the horrors of this particular war. Towards the end, Forsyth’s experience writing Fantasy novels stands her in good stead: the final scenes (before the epilogue), when Ava attempts a seemingly impossible rescue, are full of tension, brilliantly paced and carefully plotted.
The elements of romance, historical fiction, adventure (that ending) and a responsibility to honour all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis are all beautifully balanced here in Forsyth’s capable hands. She mentions, at the end of her Afterword, the fear she felt at being able to do it justice, that “I was afraid to fail all those people who suffered so terribly during the seven years of my story. It felt like some kind of responsibility … to do my best to bring their suffering and their heroism to life. To, somehow, bear witness.” (p.437) This is one of the powers of literature, of art in general, and a reason why we should privilege the Arts in all its forms. I would also say that, for someone who wasn’t even born at the time, Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful job at bearing witness, and allowing me the opportunity to feel like I was there, living it. I’m not sure what more I could want from this book.