448 pages, Random House Australia 2015
I know I can always rely on Kate Forsyth’s books for a fantastic story and a happy ending, plus The Beast’s Garden was on my list of books I’m looking forward to for the second half of 2015, so when Kate offered me a copy, it was an instant YES PLEASE! The Beast’s Garden is no exception to this – it has a cracking storyline, intrigue, romance and a finale that will blow your socks off. Oh, and there are some dreadfully sad moments too. But ultimately this book will leave you smiling at the power of love and friendship.
For those of you who like your fairy tales, The Beast’s Garden is a retelling of the Grimm brothers’ version of the Beauty and the Beast tale, The Singing, Springing Lark. Now, I’m not familiar with this tale but it was really, really difficult not to Google it during the course of The Beast’s Garden to see what happens! So for me, the majority of the storyline was a surprise (I can barely remember what happened in Beauty and the Beast, I think I’ve only seen the Disney film once…yes, sacrilege I know) but for those who are familiar with the tale, you will see some familiar motifs. The main difference is that this story is set in Nazi Germany in the lead up to and during World War II. I’ve read some great stories of WWII from the German point of view (The Undertaking by Audrey Magee is another one) and this book is no exception. It captures the spirit that there were a lot of innocent people caught up in a war that they didn’t really agree it.
The Beauty of this story is Ava, a talented singer who is good friends with a Jewish family. As the story opens on the Night of the Broken Glass, Ava runs to the aid of the Feidlers. She is stopped by a handsome young soldier but still goes to their aid. The Feidlers are like family to Ava, their son Rupert shares her birthday and they are both fans of jazz. But from this day on, life gets more difficult for the Feidlers. They are evicted from their home and Rupert is taken away to a camp called Buchenwald. Life in Berlin is getting dangerous and it’s only made worse when Ava’s father is arrested. To get him safely out of Germany, Ava must marry the handsome soldier – Leo von Lowenstein.
It’s not really a hardship for Ava at first – Leo is handsome and attentive and she’s fallen for him – but Ava desperately wants to help the resistance to thwart Hitler and ensure the Jewish people get to safety. She acts in a clandestine way, but it later turns out that Leo himself is a spy, part of a group trying to oust Hitler. It’s then that the pair fall even deeper in love with their shared goal. But as the war continues, things get worse for the main characters – can Ava save them all?
In the plot summary above, I’ve left out quite a bit of detail for two reasons – one, to coerce you into reading this fantastic story and two, because the story is crammed of excitement, plot twists and thriller-worthy action it would take a long time to describe (and ruin all the fun). Leo and Ava’s dangerous games are balanced with snippets of life of Rupert in Buchenwald where the suffering gives a sombre tone. It’s humbling and sorrowful to read about the kinds of things that happened to people simply because of their religion or political views. Jutta, Rupert’s sister, is part of a group of Jewish people trying to smuggle others out of the country and bring down Hitler. We also see the how Ava’s sister’s life is on the up and up in a relationship with a high ranking Nazi official – and then how it begins to unravel.
There are also many real life figures who appear on these pages, from Hitler himself to the Mitford sisters, Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Admiral Canaris. All the real life characters are treated with the respect (or distain in Hitler’s case) they deserve. Kate Forsyth’ excellent storytelling has made me research more into the role of the German resistance – it’s fascinating, and a little-told part of history for me. The fictional characters are brilliantly detailed and unforgettable. Ava and Leo’s romance is truly something out of a fairy tale – it’s a rush of passion, love and determination. The finale just demonstrates that even more – it’s wild and crazy but powered by love. I particularly enjoyed how each of the characters we had gotten to know through the course of the book got their own closure – so often you wonder what happened to a minor character but never find out, but it’s not the case here.
I read this book in great big batches – the storyline will carry you away and the characters are unforgettable. This is Kate Forsyth at her best – read it! I just can’t fault this story.