The beast’s garden
The story: Ava is a young German, living in Berlin during the Second World War. She is deeply concerned about her closest friends, who are Jews, and does what she can to look after them. She marries a Nazi officer, Leo, in order to save her father. Ava abhors everything Leo supposedly stands for, but falls deeply in love with him at the same time. As Ava does what she can to support an underground resistance movement, she gradually discovers that Leo is not as he seems – he is doing his part to stop Hitler. Their lives, along with their friends and family, descend into madness and chaos, as the war progresses. Ava uses all her courage and intellect to help Leo out of the brutality of war.
The highlights: ‘Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world.’ Fabulous opening sentence! This book is about Ava’s personal story juxtaposed with World War II, and the first sentence captures all of that.
The horrors of the concentration camps, where Ava’s friend Rupert spent most of the war, are detailed with bleak, horrifying imagery. I dreamt one night of concentration camps in the middle of reading The beast’s garden. I’m not sure whether concentration camps and constant references to homeless and hungry Germans are a highlight but Kate Forsythe is such a wonderful storyteller that the painful details are a necessary part of the World War II imagery. I only studied World War history from an Australian perspective at school, and then through Jewish history at university. To see German history through the eyes of those against Hitler is a unique vantage point.
‘… the newly arrived prisoners looked around. Long rows of wooden huts. High concrete walls. Coils of barbed wire. Machine-gunners in watchtowers. Endless rows of hollow-eyed prisoners in striped uniforms. And by the wall, a heap of dead naked men, stiff as driftwood, stacked in a neat pile, head to feet like sardines.’
All of the characters are strong, and many of them show the difficulty in being caught between standing up for their country and standing against their country’s leader. Anger and passion in equal doses.
‘Ava had to deflect their suspicions somehow. She tried to imagine she was a good Nazi wife. She’d be overawed to be here at Goebbels’ private residence, and dazzled by all the uniforms and medals. She’d be ambitious for her husband, and disappointed that he had lost his job at the Abwehr. She’d worship the Führer and believe all the propoganda that said Germany was winning the war. She’d want a piece of the glory and the booty.’
Kate Forsythe uses the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale The singing, springing lark, which is the original story of Beauty and the beast. Ava is Beauty – but she has the lark’s voice as she studies singing at the conservatory. And without giving the ending away, it is Ava who does the rescuing in the end, just like Beauty who follows the lark to rescue it. You don’t need to know ‘The singing, springing lark’ to appreciate this book but it’s an interesting way to understand the structure.
I have to admit, I kept sneaking away from the kids after school to read half a chapter here and there. I did the same thing with Kate Forsythe’s Wild Girl and Bitter Greens – they were just so good!
Have you read The beast’s garden or any of Kate Forsythe’s other books?