Kate Forsyth, Stories as salvation (Review)

One of the best things about being involved in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is hearing of writers whom I may not otherwise have come across, or, if I had, who may not have registered strongly with me. One such writer who regularly pops up in the challenge is novelist Kate Forsyth. The reviews that keep coming in for her books, particularly for The Wild girl and Bitter greens, have intrigued me, but I haven’t yet found an opportunity to read these novels. I did, however, find time to read the short memoir, “Stories as salvation”, Forsyth wrote for the Griffith Review some months ago now.

Forsyth’s story is both common and unusual. It’s common because it is a tale of a young girl who turned to books and stories as solace during a childhood characterised by much ill-health and many hospital stays. How many memoirs have we read that tell this story?

Stories. My only source of sunshine, my only solace. I would read all day and as late into the night as the nurses would let me … Stories were escape. Stories were magic.

But, it is unusual too, because, like most such stories, hers has its unique elements. Her health problems started when she was two years old with a vicious attack by a family dog which, among other things, destroyed one of her tear ducts. She barely survived that attack, and then suffered multiple serious infections requiring hospitalisation, due mostly to this tear duct problem. She subsequently became, she said, at the age of eleven, “the first Australian to have a successful implantation of an artificial tear duct”. She includes in this memoir her poem “Scars” which was first published in Quadrant in 1994 and which evokes the visible and invisible scars of her experience, their power and her power over them.

What I found most interesting in this essay-length memoir was her clear articulation of how her childhood reading had informed the writer she is today. I am always interested in how writers end up writing what they write, and what their intention is (regardless of whether their intention is what I might take away from their writing.) For Forsyth, her introduction to Grimms’ Fairy Tales when she was seven came “to haunt [her] imagination”. She was particularly attracted to Rapunzel who

too was locked away from the world against her will. She too was lonely and afraid. Her tears healed the eyes of the blinded prince, as I so desperately longed to be healed. The uncanny parallels between Rapunzel and my life seemed to have some potent meaning.

And so, later, she started writing. Her first novels, commencing with The Witches of Eileanan in 1997, were firmly in the fantasy genre. In them, she says, “the themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and redemption, appear again and again”. However, it seems Rapunzel stayed in her mind. She started researching the origins of the story, and realised that she did not want to write it as “an otherworld fantasy”:

I wanted to capture the charge of terror and despair that young girl must have felt. I wanted to remind readers that women have been locked up for centuries against their will in this world.

Our world.

ForsythBitterGreensSo the resultant novel, Bitter greens (2012), is set in a real place at a real time. It could not, therefore, she says, rely on magic to explain all the mysteries in the story. She also explains how this research led her to “undertake a doctorate on the subject, with Bitter greens as the creative component.” It also led her to write The Wild girl about Dortchen Wild who was a neighbour of the Grimm family and who told Wilhelm Grimm “almost one quarter of the eighty-six tales collected” in the brothers’ first edition. (Just to be clear, though … she was one of many from whom the brothers collected.)

Now, I have to say that I am not particularly interested in Forsyth’s fantasy series, but these two books, which tend more to the historical fiction genre, do fascinate me. I will try to get to them one day. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by what Forsyth loves in a story:

romance, passion, tragedy, struggle, and, finally, triumph.

I do like those things – who doesn’t – but I don’t need “triumph”. I don’t dislike books with this result, but I am happy with stories that are more equivocal, that make me wonder at the end. Life isn’t always, in fact often isn’t, triumphant – and I am more than happy for the arts to reflect that reality. Moreover, I’m not sure what Forsyth thinks, but I think stories can, by their very existence, provide “salvation” without offering “triumph”.  What do you think?

BTW, I was intrigued to read in her Official Biography that Forsyth is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring, the author of the first book for children published in Australia, A Mother’s Offering to her Children. Waring was the mother of Louisa Atkinson, about whom I have written.

awwchallenge2014Kate Forsyth
“Stories as salvation”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 42, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

25 thoughts on “Kate Forsyth, Stories as salvation (Review)

  1. I do think that stories can provide salvation, probably in unexpected ways. I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s three novella collection Women with Men and the way he denudes emotion, finds common ground, shows us what we are made of.. There is a scene where a man’s infatuation begins to fall apart – beginning with a pair of unflattering trousers printed with giraffes worn by the object of his desire. It’s absurd, it’s almost too real; for me it delivers comfort.

    Triumph is a slippery thing, as I don’t like to be told when to feel uplifted. And yet – this probably doesn’t make sense – there are some passages (I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor) where an author’s accuracy is alarming and language and intent converge – I find this triumphant!

    • Thanks Catherine … Yes, I’d call that triumphant too … I was thinking that “triumph” can be more complex than a resolution that shows some sort of success over adversity, though I think this latter is probably what Forsyth means. Not to denigrate that sort of triumph at all, but I’d feel cheated somehow if every book I read felt it needed to offer that.

  2. Nadia WHEATLEY – another writer who spent a lengthy part of her childhood away from formal education/school due to ill health. And the former SMH gardening writer of some years ago – was it a name something like Densey Clyne? Other readers will surely know! Whose childhood was spent as an invalid away from formal schooling!

  3. It is interesting to see writer’s backgrounds related to reading. I grew up in a chaotic home and used to escape to the small library down the street where I hid out. I loved the silence. I agree with you re: triumph not needing to be essential in a novel. I find I remember the books more that did not have a happily ever after ending because I thought about it a lot more. Sometimes those endings can be terribly sad or even unresolved but I do remember them. Interesting post.

    • Yes, I like that response Pam … it’s those books that leave you thinking, wondering, that tend to last the most (with the exception of Jane Austen, of course!!). It would be interesting to know what Kate Forsyth means by triumph. I’m assuming from the way she said it that she means happy endings – and a lot of readers love that – but it would be good to know whether she does see triumph as more complicated. I’m thinking for example of A fine balance which I argue has a triumph (though it’s certainly not happy) but others see it as desperately sad (and some don’t like the book for that.)

  4. Whilst this is a bloody meaningless comment, Sue (my apologies !), I must make it: I’ve decided not to even read your wonderful books reviews any more – not until I can get over this horrible problem with reading … It’s too … regret-making. :-\

  5. I adored ‘Bitter Greens’ and, upon reading your thoughts on Forsyth’s ‘Griffith Review’ essay, I was prompted to check on the quotes I specifically enjoyed in ‘Bitter Greens’:

    ” Words. I had always loved them. I collected them, like I had collected pretty stones as a child. I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch.” (444)

    There is a clear connection here between her fiction and her childhood, I’d say.

  6. Thanks for this,WG, and I agree with you. I haven’t read any of Kate Forsyth’s books, but I’ve heard her speak about them a few times. I’m intrigued that she uses the word ‘triumph’; in some ways it does feel like a fairy story ending, but perhaps that’s the more contemporary view. But Forsyth would know, probably better than any of us, that the original stories weren’t all triumphant — The Little Mermaid is one with a fairly tough ending (pre-Disney, that is!). When I look at the other words she uses in that sentence, they’re all strong, emotive words — perhaps that’s why she used ‘triumph’.

    • I’ve also heard her speak about her books and was impressed with her enthusiasm for writing. So much so, that I was hoping she could come and work with our students this month while she was in Europe but we just couldn’t get the dates to work. I’m half-way through The Wild Girl, not a genre I would normally read but am enjoying the characters of Dortchen and Wilhem and in particular, the setting – learning about that time in history.

    • Thanks Robyn … I have heard her on the radio, and have enjoyed hearing what she has to say. She also mentions in her essay about the Grimm Brothers’ rewriting of the stories they heard. There are probably almost as many versions out tree as there are tellers!

      Good point about those words she uses. It would be interesting to have her interpretation of “triumph”.

  7. Ooh so interesting! I’ve not heard of Forsyth before but you have me intrigued. I can get Bitter Greens through ILL it looks like. Will have to do that sometime 🙂

    • And I definitely don’t need my stories to offer triumph at the end. Sure it’s nice now and then but so often it seems it comes at the expense of the story and ends up feeling forced.

      • Yes, that’s how I think too Stefanie. Sometimes there is triumph but not always – I like it fiction to reflect that. In other words, I’m happy for some stories to end on triumph but I like not expecting it, I like being challenged by non-triumphant or equivocal resolutions.

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