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After the forest by Kell Woods

A review by Nalini Haynes

Hans and Greta survived the forest and the old witch who tried to fatten up Hans. After the forest, they became adults, living with and living down their past. Greta uses the witch’s grimoire to bake the best gingerbread that can tempt a body. Meanwhile, Hans drinks and gambles away all the resources they don’t have.

Greta ventures back into the forest to scavenge some wild honey for her baking. A bear scares her but, while she waits for death, he licks her hand. She runs home, breathless, only to be accused of witchcraft and murder. Again.

Then she learns that Hans has, effectively, gambled away their home. The creepy burgermeister offers Greta a job as a servant. A job that, he makes clear, comes with extra-curricular requirements. Me Too eat your heart out. Or eat your gingerbread. Whatevs.

Note: this is NOT a rapey book. Greta fends off unwanted advances.

All the fairy tales

Woods’s novel weaves together many European fairy tales, creating a tapestry of the familiar but from a different perspective. Rose Red, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… so many tales are woven into these pages. But ware, this is no tale for Smumans (Small Humans). It involves sex and violence and gore. Not very different from the original collections of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm I guess…

When I was 6, I recall reading Cinderella, Snow White, the Princess and the Pea… all those stories did was to depress me. Those stories required princes to rescue damsels in distress; I believed I’d never find my prince. The Princess and the Pea is about a princess who was bloody rude to her hosts! She was so fragile – a desired trait apparently – that she couldn’t sleep with a pea under several soft mattresses. My father made me sleep in a sleeping bag, no pillow, on a wooden surface, so I knew I was no such princess. And I didn’t know if I should be proud that I had better manners or ashamed of being tougher.

But Hansel and Gretel was a tale to which I could relate. The loathsome parents sent their children out in the forest to die. And when their attempts to “shed” themselves of their children failed the first couple of times because the kids were too clever, the parents tried again. The third time the children were truly lost in the forest. This was a tale to which I could relate. Isolation, danger, selfishness and malice from adults, this was my story, I felt seen.

And Gretel beat the witch. She won. A rare fairy tale figure, a girl with agency who won.

So it’s hardly surprising, then, that After the Forest called to me. It resonates with me. Especially as Greta, as a woman of 22, still struggles. She struggles with the problems life throws at her. “Life” including her selfish brother and the bigots in her village who treat her like an outcast. And she struggles with her burgeoning power, which leads to choices down the road. Which way will she go?

The verdict

After the Forest is a beautifully rendered riveting fairy tale for adults, especially those who love Kate Forsyth’s retellings. Kick-ass. Critics may say it’s predictable but, if this book didn’t have that ending, I would have been bitterly disappointed. Right down to the Blood Tithe. If it wasn’t what it was, then I would have howled with outrage.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. I have been rewriting Ahsoka, creating a much darker version that aligns better with After the Forest. Is that just me? Or am I alone in ranting at “because plot” “twists” and unrealistic narrow escapes and the villain pontificating about how Ahsoka is unpredictable so he’ll give her freedom to act as she wishes then be one step ahead of her? I prefer stories with a bit more bite.

After the Forest author, Kell Woods, will be a guest on DMZ’s podcast on 9 October 2023 so watch this space. Kell says she loves Juliet Marillier (podcast interview of Juliet) and Kate Forsyth’s (podcast interview of Kate) stories.

Book details

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Australian version: HarperCollins
American version: Pan Macmillan
UK version: Titan Books
After the Forest: the UK version is, I think, the prettiest. I need a hardcover copy! After the Forest US and Australian cover

 

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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