A review by Nalini Haynes
The Beast’s Garden is a historical romance crossed with a thriller, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a historically-accurate Nazi Germany, beginning in the lead up to Hitler exhorting his compatriots to persecute Jews.
Ava is half-German and half-Spaniard but looks like a beautiful Jew, a fact that will bring trouble.
Leo is a Graf, a German aristocrat, struggling to live up to a proud heritage of military service in an era that will put his ethics and morals to the ultimate test.
They meet and fall in love and yet their secret abhorrence of the Nazi regime sets them at odds, neither knowing the other’s beliefs nor trusting the other with their perilous secrets.
Worse still, Ava’s sister is a Nazi, working closely with the regime and hoping for a romance of her own.
The Beast’s Garden is a beautiful rendition of the traditional tale with a more recent historical twist. Forsyth’s obsession with maintaining historical accuracy when featuring real people (most of the characters in the story except the protagonists and their families) and the apparent need to shorten her doorstopper novel, results in some crucial storylines reduced to postcard exposition instead of building tension by showing us developments. For example, Ava builds relationships with a childhood friend and the rebellion, gradually developing trust relying on secrecy. Thus notes are exchanged via real-world ‘drop boxes’ in the Beast’s Garden. However, the initial relaying of this information was less than a page, pretty much a ‘here’s one I prepared earlier to explain this event today’; I felt this detracted from my interest in the characters and the tension-building in the story.
I was fascinated by Forsyth’s disclosure that most of the characters were historical figures; this makes the story more compelling, more visceral. This declaration pretty much draws lines between historical records and fiction; captures and executions meant so much more when I realised they were real people who gave their lives for the good of humanity.
Towards the end of the novel, events became a little more snapshot-y again, leading to a neat conclusion. While this may give a more satisfying end to the majority of readers, I felt that a more historically-believable conclusion to the central characters would have been more appropriate. I guess it depends: do you want a happy or tragic ending? Usually I prefer to avoid tragedy but The Beast’s Garden delves into the real world for source material to the extent that I felt tragedy (more tragedy?) was inevitable.
Overall, The Beast’s Garden is a well-researched historical romance with an abundance of fact for the reader to consume with a spoonful of sugar (the romantic fiction) to help a timely history lesson go down. Lest we forget.
(Note: Please pardon the pun/reference above. The Sound of Music was based on historical fact but the Von Trapp family’s escape from the Nazis was highly fictionalised.)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Format: paperback, 448 pages
Imprint: Vintage Australia (Penguin Random House)