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BOOK REVIEW: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Friday, July 29, 2016

BLURB:

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

WHAT I THOUGHT:

I loved this story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose stories slowly converge amidst the horror of the Second World War. The book is composed of small vignettes of their lives, as they each struggle to make sense of the madness that is their world. Werner is fascinated by radios, and so is trained to track down the anti-Nazi resistance. Marie-Laure escapes the invasion of Paris with her father and makes it to the old walled town of Saint-Malo where her reclusive uncle remembers his past with an old radio transmitter. When Marie-Laure’s father is arrested, she and her uncle begin to surreptitiously use his old radio to help those fighting to resist the German occupation. And so the two story lines converge, with heart-breaking results. A truly compelling and moving novel.

BOOK REVIEW: TOWER OF THORNS by Juliet Marillier

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Juliet Marillier’s books are an enchanting mix of romance, mystery and historical fantasy. Tower of Thorns is the second in her new series ‘Blackthorn & Grim’ which tells the story of the damaged and disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her faithful companion Grim. Both have been badly hurt and betrayed in the past, and they carry the scars deep inside them. In this episode of the series, the two friends are asked to help a noblewoman who has a strange and uncanny problem – a creature has taken up residence in an old tower and howls all day, driving the people of the land mad. Bound by the fey to help anyone who asks, Blackthorn has no choice but to do what she can – even though the task will tax her to the limits of her strength. As always, Juliet Marillier’s prose is luminous, and the story both powerful and poignant. The books in this series can be read and enjoyed on their own, but I’d recommend beginning with Book 1: Dreamer’s Pool.


BOOK REVIEW: THE ROSE GARDEN by Susanna Kearsley

Friday, June 17, 2016



When Eva's film star sister Katrina dies, she leaves California and returns to Cornwall, where they spent their childhood summers, to scatter Katrina's ashes and in doing so return her to the place where she belongs. But Eva must also confront the ghosts from her own past, as well as those from a time long before her own. For the house where she so often stayed as a child is home not only to her old friends the Halletts, but also to the people who had lived there in the eighteenth century. When Eva finally accepts that she is able to slip between centuries and see and talk to the inhabitants from hundreds of years ago, she soon finds herself falling for Daniel Butler, a man who lived - and died - long before she herself was born. Eva begins to question her place in the present, and in laying her sister to rest, comes to realise that she too must decide where she really belongs, choosing between the life she knows and the past she feels so drawn towards. 

Susanna Kearsley mixes together romance, suspense, and the supernatural in wonderfully readable ways. The Rose Garden is the story of a woman who keeps slipping back and forth between times in Cornwall. So part of the story is set in the present-day and part of it set in 1715, a time of smugglers and Jacobite plots. Of course there’s a man in the now and a man in the past, and problems and dangers in both. It’s a period of history that I really love, and I must say I have a real soft spot for books set in Cornwall, a place I’ve always longed to visit. Susanna Kearsley has a light, deft touch – The Rose Garden is the sort of book that you can race through in a single setting, hoping all the time for a happy ending but not sure how the author is going to pull it off. Delightful.

BOOK REVIEW: THE SWORD IN THE STONE by T.H. White

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I had to re-read this book after reading Helen Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir H is for Hawk, which revealed much I did not know about T.H. White and his life and sorrows and struggles. 

A classic of children’s fantasy, The Sword in the Stone is a funny and inventive story of King Arthur’s childhood. It was first published in 1938, but it feels incredibly fresh. Much of the book is made up of a series of set pieces in which Arthur (known as the Wart) is changed into different animals like a fish, a falcon, and a badger, and meets various comic or menacing characters, such as Robin Hood (cleverly disguised as Robin Wood). The underlying idea is that the Wart is being secretly prepared to be king by his tutor, Merlyn. The book abounds in comic anachronisms (ostensibly because Merlyn lives backwards), but it is also filled with acutely observed historical details about medieval times. No attempt has been made to simplify the language, and so one of its joys is the multitude of strange words and terms, which I remember delighting in as a child. 

A wonderful, strange and memorable fantasy, perfect for any clever child.

BOOK REVIEW: H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

Monday, June 13, 2016



When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk's fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald's humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer's eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

A wonderful meditation on grief, nature and hawks.

The author, Helen Macdonald is a naturalist and research scholar at the University of Cambridge. Hawks have fascinated her ever since she was a small child. When her father dies unexpectedly, she decides to train a goshawk, something she has never done before.

Goshawks are one of the biggest of the hawks, and have a notoriously savage temper. They are difficult to train. Helen Macdonald entwines the story of her own challenging journey with that of the author T.H. White, who wrote about his own struggles in a book called Goshawk, published in 1951. T.H. White is better known for his classic children’s fantasy The Sword in the Stone, which has a remarkable scene in it in which the Wart (the boy who became King Arthur) is turned into a hawk.

The result is utterly fascinating. I learned so much about hawks and falconry, and also about the life of T.H. White, which I did not know about before. The language is cool, precise, and beautiful: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” 

BOOK REVIEW: THE LIE TREE by Frances Hardinge

Friday, June 10, 2016



Winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2015, The Lie Tree is a dark and powerful novel from universally acclaimed author, Frances Hardinge. 

It was not enough. All knowledge- any knowledge - called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.

Faith has a thirst for science and secrets that the rigid confines of her class cannot supress. And so it is that she discovers her disgraced father's journals, filled with the scribbled notes and theories of a man driven close to madness. Tales of a strange tree which, when told a lie, will uncover a truth: the greater the lie, the greater the truth revealed to the liar. Faith's search for the tree leads her into great danger - for where lies seduce, truths shatter . . .


The Lie Tree is an utterly brilliant and surprising YA historical novel with a magical twist – it recently won the Costa Book of the Year award in a decision that I applaud most enthusiastically. The story is set in Victorian times, teetering on the edge of the uneasy chasm that opened up between science and religion following Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Faith is a fourteen-year-old girl with an eager, questioning mind, who is constantly being reprimanded for unwomanly behaviour. She adores her naturalist father, loves her little brother, and dislikes her pretty, manipulative mother. The family – accompanied by her Uncle Miles – sail to Vane, an imaginary island much like Jersey, to escape a scandal. Faith’s father is then found dead. Trying to find out what happened, Faith stumbles upon a complex mystery of deceit, betrayal, and murder. 

The story twists and turns, with all sorts of surprising discoveries, and the characters are all drawn with a swift, deft hand. The Lie Tree at the centre of the story is an extraordinary imaginative creation. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so please do not be put off by its young protagonist or the fantastical elements. This book is a tour de force. Read it.


BOOK REVIEW: PARAGON WALK; RESURRECTION ROW; RUTLAND PLACE by Anne Perry

Friday, June 10, 2016

Anne Perry is acknowledged as the Queen of Victorian murder mysteries, with clever plots, engaging characters, and a great deal of period atmosphere. I’ve read a few of her books over the years, and am now reading my way through her first series (The Inspector Pitt Mysteries) in order.

Paragon Walk is the third book in the series, and sees Inspector Pitt and his unconventional upper-class wife Charlotte investigating the rape and murder of a seemingly ordinary young woman. However, dark secrets lurk behind the elegant facades of Paragon Walk, and Charlotte’s relentless digging sees her facing mortal danger.  

In Resurrection Row, a corpse is found sitting at the reins of a hansom cab … a corpse that simply will not stay buried. A really intriguing mystery that tests Inspector Pitt and his wife Charlotte in unexpected ways. 

Rutland Place begins with a series of petty thefts, and escalates to bloody murder and a troubling denouement. Once again, Charlotte uses her upper-class family connections to dig out secrets that her policeman husband Thomas Pitt simply could not access.

This is not a series to read for pace and suspense. Anne Perry is much more interested in the interior lives of her characters, and in probing the hypocrisy of the Victorians’ attitude to gender, class, and sexuality. The mysteries are always intriguing, nonetheless, and most importantly – it’s quite hard to guess the murderer!

THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST: Eight-year-old readers tell me what they think

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Never be too shy to write to an author you love - I promise you, it will make their day!

I just received the loveliest mail from a teacher in New Zealand who read my children's fantasy series THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST to her students - I will treasure their notes to me forever. 
Here they are:


Dear Kate 


I am the teacher of a year 3-4 class in a small rural school, just outside Hamilton, in New Zealand. 


I picked up a copy of Book 1, The Impossible Quest - Escape from Wolfhaven Castle at a literacy conference in 2013. I returned to school and immediately read it to my class. The children were totally engaged and enthralled with the story, so much so I actually stopped reading one day as they were so still and silent (this doesn’t often happen!) 



The following year I read books 1-3 to my class and they were hanging out to read book 4 & 5. This year I was lucky to have the same group of children (small school!) and so we have read book 4 & 5. 


I had purchased book 5 online and so displayed this on the screen for the children to read along with me. What an experience that was for both myself and the children. We were all hanging out to get to the end of book 5 and what an ending. It was very satisfying! 

Many of the children have independently read the book again. We had several hypothesis regarding the sleeping heroes, who Jack might be and of course the realisation that Quinn was in fact a queen. The whole way through the series we were kept guessing, just like the children in the novels. The children have written some comments about the novels that they wanted to share with you. They were also wondering if there was any chance that this might be made into a movie. These children are all 8 years old. 




What I liked most about your books are that they’re all rescue missions which I think is the awesome part. That’s what I think is extraordinary about your books – Prue 


Your books are awesome. It was great in the Battle of the Heroes, when the Mortlakes were captured in the cages - Chase 


I liked your books because they have really good words and the action is very exciting. Kloey 8 years 


I really like Quinn. I also liked the very last sentence in Book 5… They all laughed knowing that none of them believed anything was impossible any more. Lacy 



Your books are interesting. I like your titles of the books. Drayden 


I love your Impossible Quest series. They are so unique and extraordinary. I’ve read the whole series myself! I especially like Book 5. It’s got so much drama. I love all of the fantasy animals. When I grow up I want to be an awesome author like you. Ashlee 


What I liked about your story is how you made people fight and I also liked Fergus. Khaled 


I like most about the Impossible Quest is the adventures in the book. I liked Fergus. Brad 



I liked the characters and the weapons in your books. Luke 


I like your books because they are very good and they excited me when I when I read the first one. Phoenix 


I really liked how you wrote book 5 because it really excited me with all the scary parts. Phoebe. 



I really liked the adventures that the children had. Saige 


What I liked most about your Impossible Quest book 5 was that I thought it was very extraordinary. My favourite characters were Quinn, Wolfric and Beltain. Your books blow my mind. Jessica. 


I like the Impossible Quest books because there are adventures in each book. My favourite characters are Quinn and Quickthorn. The first book was absolutely astonishing. They had to escape Wolfhaven castle. Book 3 was epic because they found Beltain the dragon. Thank you for making the Impossible Quest series. Alexa 


I liked Impossible Quest 5 because of the heroes. The heroes are extraordinary and Quinn, Eleanor, Tom and Sebastian and the other characters are all awesome. Micaiah 


I liked the adventures the children had and their animals. My favourite one was the unicorn, Quickthorn, Wolfric and Fergus. Cassie 



Once again, thanks for writing such an appealing, engaging and enthralling series of books that are appropriate for our younger readers. 
Kindest Regards 


Leanne Adam Class 
Teacher Rukuhia School, Hamilton, New Zealand


BOOK REVIEW: THE MATISSE STORIES by A S Byatt

Monday, June 06, 2016


These three stories celebrate the eye even as they reveal its unexpected proximity to the heart. For if each of A.S. Byatt's narratives is in some way inspired by a painting of Henri Matisse, each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling--about the ways in which a glance we meant to be casual may suddenly call forth the deepest reserves of our being. Beautifully written, intensely observed, The Matisse Stories is fiction of spellbinding authority.

I picked up this little book in a second-hand bookstore, only knowing that I love Matisse’s art and A.S. Byatt’s novels. I’m also very interested in how writers drew on the work of visual artists in fiction (I’m working on a book about the Pre-Raphaelites right now).

The book is comprised of three short stories, loosely linked through some mention of Matisse. The first story is the weakest, involving a frustrated middle-aged woman who visits a hairdresser because she likes his Matisse print on the wall. The second was my favourite, involving a tense triangle between a woman, her artist-husband, and their cleaner, who is much more than she seems. The final story – a sharply observed vignette about some of the problems of modern-day academia - is the one most closely concerned with Matisse. 

Each situation is acutely observed and stamped with A.S. Byatt’s trademark wit and irony.



INTERVIEW: Kim Wilkins interviews Kate Forsyth about THE BEAST'S GARDEN

Sunday, June 05, 2016

KIM WILKINS INTERVIEWS KATE FORSYTH 

On the Writing of The Beast's Garden





Historical fiction is usually defined as fiction that takes place before the author's birth. Usually you write about pre-20th century history, but this book is very much within our parents' lifetimes. Were there extra challenges in writing "modern history"?


Although THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a very challenging book to write, it was not because it was set in the ‘modern history’ period of the 20th century. Apart, of course, from having to write about Hitler and the Gestapo and concentration camps!

All historical fiction – regardless of the time period – has a certain set of challenges. I feel that my job as an author is to bring the world of my story vividly to life upon the page, allowing the reader to experience that world with all of their senses and all of their understanding. To do so, I have to slip inside the skins of all my characters, trying to understand at a deep cellular level how a person of that time thought and felt and perceived the world. To achieve this level of understanding, I spend a long time reading and researching and thinking and imagining. I don’t start writing my story until I feel I understand the inner and outer worlds of my characters.

Much of the challenge of writing historical fiction, therefore, has to do with the reading and research involved, and the absorbing and internalising of all that I read. 

So - in a way - the life of a young woman in Berlin during World War II was much easier than other places and times I’ve worked with, simply because life at that time has been so widely recorded and scrutinised. 

However, each book throws up new problems and new challenges, each unique to that story. I think the great challenge for me was trying my best to do justice to the amazing true stories of courage, strength of spirit, and compassion that I discovered. And – I must say – not allowing my own spirit to be darkened by all the horror and cruelty of the times.




You've made a name as a fantasy writer, the book relies very heavily on fairytale structure and ideas, and there is a strong element of romance in it. Given the way that all these things are often seen as trivial or "light", did you have misgivings about writing about a topic that is so relentlessly associated with the serious and weighty?

Well, I was constantly plagued by misgivings and doubts and fears. I always am. It's the cost of creativity.

However, I never doubted my story, or the importance of writing it, or the rightness of creating a story of love and steadfast courage and salvation in the midst of such darkness and terror. What I doubted was my own ability to tell the story as well as I wished to tell it. But I simply trusted in my story, trusted that it was a story that needed to be told, and trusted that I would find the way to do it. It was not easy. THE BEAST’S GARDEN was by far the most difficult book I have ever written. It took me a while to find the right form and structure for the story, and I am someone who needs to see the narrative shape clearly in my mind’s eye. I also struggled with the research that I had to do. Spending months and months reading about Hitler and the horror of the Holocaust was just soul-harrowing, and I needed to be careful not to allow that to overwhelm me, or my novel. 

I was aware, at all times, that THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a love story, and a story of courage and resistance and redemption, and so – rather than being a source of anxiety and misgivings – knowing what my story was actually gave me a light to steer by. I never forgot what I was truly doing in my heart, and that helped me overcome any apprehensions. 



There are many beasts in this story. There were people in it that I simply and absolutely despised. Who do you think was the beastliest beast (and let's remove Hilter from the pool so you don't have to consider him)?

Adolf Hitler is, of course, the most obvious manifestation of beastliness in the book, and I found it fascinating that he identified so strongly with wolves, one of the traditional beasts of terror in fairy tales (he liked to be called Herr Wolf, for example, and many of his headquarters were given names such as the Wolf’s Lair).



Then, of course, we have Heydrich Reinhard, who was head of the Gestapo for a good many years. He was nicknamed The Butcher of Prague and The Blond Beast. Of all the Nazi monsters, he was the one I always found the most chilling, perhaps because he was known to play the violin exquisitely. The violin is the instrument that plays my soul’s music. I find it almost unbearable that a man could, without hesitation, order the death of millions of people and then pick up a violin and play music of heartbreaking beauty. It seems so wrong, in a way that I find difficult to articulate. I think perhaps its because I think music and poetry and art and stories are so often expressions of beauty and love and healing, and a man like that should not be able to create it, or appreciate it. I know this is foolish and untrue. An appreciation of beauty and cruelty of heart have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. I just want it to be true.



But Reinhard is like Hitler and the rest of the cogs in the Nazi death machine – they are obvious villains, almost cartoonish in their virulence. And I was concerned, in the main, with more subtle kinds of beastliness – the ordinary people who betrayed their friends or families, or who looked the other way and so allowed evil to happen. 

I think the character in THE BEAST’S GARDEN who disturbed me the most was Stella Goldschlag, a real-life woman in 1940s Berlin. She was a beautiful young Jewish woman who became one of the infamous ‘catchers’ for the Gestapo. This meant that she was paid to find and point out other Jews to the Nazi police, so that they could be shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Stella Goldschlag betrayed many of her old school-friends and neighbours, and was so hated the Gestapo gave her a revolver to protect herself against assassination attempts. She later said she had become a ‘catcher’ to save her parents from the concentration camps, but the truth is her activities only intensified after both were sent to Theresienstadt.  Nicknamed ‘Blonde Poison’ for her pretty Aryan looks, Stella Goldschlag was paid 300 reichsmarks for each Jew she ‘caught’, and it is estimated she was responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 people. Her own husband ended up in Auschwitz, and yet she continued to work for the Gestapo right up until the fall of Berlin. Of course she was motivated by fear (she had been tortured by the Gestapo before she agreed to work for them), but also I think by greed and a desire for a soft and easy life. It is the fact that she knew her victims, and knew what was going to happen to them, that make her actions so horrifying to me. 



I loved the way you wove in the stories of real people among the fictional. I was amazed to find out that people such as Libertas, the Admiral, and Heydrich were real; and that Ava, Jutta, Rupert, and Leo stood alongside them just as three dimensional. Were there challenges in weaving the real and the fictional?

Absolutely! It would have been much easier to have had everyone in the book (except Hitler and Heydrich, of course) being made-up characters whose speech and actions and motivations I could control. 

However, a key concern for me in my most recent books has been this idea of giving a voice to forgotten women. In BITTER GREENS, I tell the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century French noblewoman who wrote the best-known version of ‘Rapunzel’. In THE WILD GIRL, my heroine was Dortchen Wild, the young woman who was the original oral source for many of the Grimm brothers’ most beloved fairy tales. THE BEAST’S GARDEN differs from the previous two books by not being inspired by the true lives of forgotten fairy-tale tellers. However, it is galvanized by the true lives of people who risked everything to stand up to Hitler, and whose stories are now largely unknown. Libertas Schulze-Boysen, Mildred Harnack and their friends were ordinary women, with hopes and dreams and talents that the world will now never see fulfilled. I find this very sad, and so I felt a strong desire to honour the truth of their actions, and to celebrate their courage and strength of spirit. Their true stories were so astonishing, so powerful, so heartbreaking, and so inspiring, I did not want to take their actions and give them to fictional characters with made-up names and backgrounds.

There was one character who began as a fictional creation of mine, only for me to find that she really – in one sense, at least – existed. The thought of it still raises all the hairs on my arms. 

In the original fairy tale of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, there is an evil enchantress who curses the hero so he is trapped in the shape of a beast. When I was planning my novel, I called this character ‘the Gestapo woman’ and decided that she would be a young woman who admired and worked for the Nazis, and is in some way responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of my hero, Leo. 

I chose to call this character ‘Gertrud’, because I don’t like that name, and because it means ‘spear-maiden’, thus tying her back to the Valkyries of Norse and Wagnerian myth. 

Many months later, I am working on the chapters in which the Gestapo arrests Ava’s friends, Libertas and Mildred. I read Libertas’ heart-rending letter she wrote to her mother on the eve of her execution (a letter which I reproduce in the book), and realise – with an electric shock of nerves – that Libertas was tricked into betraying her fellow resisters by a young woman working for the Gestapo … and that young woman’s name was Gertrud. 





Let's talk about some of your characters. Ava is described in the book as somebody who "would not keep her head down and her mouth shut". 
How important was that for the story?

Extremely important! 

Ava needed to be headstrong, courageous and far too outspoken for the plot to work. The story begins with her rushing through the darkness on Kristallnacht in order to try and save her best friend and his family, who are Jewish. She runs into a stranger, and in the intensity of the moment, speaks from her heart about her fear and hatred of the Nazi regime. She does not realize that the stranger she has met is an officer in the Abwehr, the German secret service. She risks her life, and that of her family, by speaking out so frankly, and her impulsiveness could have ended very badly for her. Instead she changes her life and that of the Nazi officer. 

Later in the book, she joins the underground resistance movement, something that no sensible German hausfrau would do, and she speaks out through anti-Nazi graffiti and leaflets. Her outspoken character drives the whole plot of the book, right up to her unwitting betrayal of her husband towards the end. 

Ava is also a singer, and her musical voice plays a very strong part in the whole narrative too. 

I have a lot of bird symbolism throughout the book, inspired by the key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the Grimm fairy tale that first sparked this book. Symbolically, the lark is seen as a messenger from God, the carrier of news, the herald of light and joy and the new day. So Ava is my messenger of light, my lark. Her name even means ‘bird’ and ‘life’ – I chose it very carefully. (Do you remember? We were in Oxford together when I found it.)


Ava is also described as almost synaesthetic. She sees music and colours in everything. Is that something taken from your own life or someone you know?

Yes, that’s me. I have always had the ability to see images, or stories, in sounds. When I listen to music, if its something that moves me or excites me, I will get a series of little moving coloured images in my mind, like a snippet of a film. Every time this happens to Ava in the book, I describe something that I have seen myself, in response to the same piece of music or the same word or name. I have been told it's a form of synaesthesia but I don’t believe it is, simply because it does not happen to me all the time. Not all names spark an image in my mind’s eye, and not all music tells me a story. Sometimes, if I concentrate hard, I can conjure an image. Synaesthesia, however, is said to be both involuntary and constant i.e. the same colour is always seen at the sound of a particular note of music.

Perhaps it is simply because I have such an over-active imagination!



Rupert (Ava's "almost-twin") was my favourite character. His poetry was sublime. I wondered if you wrote it or if it was actually poetry found secreted around the Jewish prison camps?

I’m glad you loved the poetry. I wrote it all. Most of it was written at fever-pitch, late at night when I was exhausted, and appears in the book virtually word-for-word as I first wrote it down. I did, however, read quite a lot of poetry when I wrote THE BEAST’S GARDEN. Mainly Rainer Maria Rilke, who I quote extensively through the narrative, but also Holocaust-driven poetry by writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Czeslaw Milosz, Lotte Kramer, and Chaia L. Heller, unbearably sad and moving poems.




Let's turn to research now: Berlin, which is a city I love, is always changing. After the allies had taken it, it was described as "a pile of rubble next to Potsdam". How did you go about reconstructing the brilliant, beautiful pre-war Berlin?

It was important to me to bring Berlin of the late 1930s as vividly to life as I could, to deepen the sense of waste and desolation following the city’s fall in April 1945. 

So I had to do a lot of research. Pre-war travel guides were useful to me, especially one in which I found a map! History books, memoirs, old photographs and news-reels, descriptions in pre-war German literature – these were all useful to me. I travelled to Berlin, and went to all the places that still existed or had been rebuilt. I particularly loved the Tiergarten, and walked in it every day. In my mind’s eye I carried all the old photographs I had studied, in which nothing was left of the Tiergarten but a few burnt sticks and acres of ash.

And because I found Berlin so inutterably moving, this crucible of 20th century history, I think I managed to pour all that empathy and connection into my descriptions of how the city once was (or, at least, how I imagined it once was). 




Some of the details of your research were captivating. I need to know: was there really a woman who ate the gravel Hitler had stepped upon?


Yes, there was. Not just one. Many.

At least according to Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German novelist of the time who kept a secret diary between 1936 and 1944. He hated Hitler with an absolute passion, and most of the diary is a record of that hate. He wrote: 

‘My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor …’ His diary is a reminder that not all Germans adored Hitler to the extent of literally eating the ground he trod on!

David Pryce-Jones, one of Unity Mitford’s biographers, repeated the anecdote about the swallowed gravel while discussing Hitler’s extraordinary charismatic pull over young women such as Unity and her sister Diana, and that is where I first read it. 




You wrote about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler. Why do you think women felt that way about him?

I think it has to do with the giddy dangerous allure of power, especially absolute power, and also with Hitler’s own personal charisma. He had a way of fixing his eyes on someone with unswerving intensity that made many people – both men and women – feel a strong physiological reaction. Their temperature rose, sweat broke out on their hands, their collars felt too tight, they would feel light-headed and unsteady. Many did faint in his presence, in much the same way that people swoon over pop stars. Films of the time show women rushing the barricades, arms held up to touch him, trying to kiss him, and being dragged away by his bodyguards. It was more than his personal charisma, however. Unity was in love with him before she even met him. She moved to Munich in the hope that she might meet him, and spent days hanging round his favourite restaurant until at last he noticed her. In some way, Hitler’s words – both his promises and his threats – filled some hunger or need in the hearts of Unity Mitford and other young women like her. Freud would have called it a death impulse. 




The fear of the oppressive fascist regime pervades everything in this story. It adds so much pressure to the characters that you're sure they can't survive.
You show a side of Germany during the war that isn't often shown: that of the German people. Did you ever reflect, while writing this, on whether you would be like Ava, or if you would keep your head down and your mouth shut under such circumstances?

Oh yes! All the time. I kept thinking: what would I have done? Would I have had the courage to try and resist? 

It was very important to me to show that Ava was just an ordinary young woman, led step-by-step into extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness (and so too, by extension, Libertas and Mildred and the other real-life women of the story). They were not spies, trained to kill a man with their hat-pins. They did not have guns, or shoe-phones, or skeleton keys. They had to work and queue for food and try and find warm clothes for their children and spend their nights in air-raid shelters, struggling simply to survive. And yet somehow they found the courage to surreptitiously pass food to starving prisoners, to hide Jews and try to help them escape, to keep records of the atrocities they saw … all at the risk not only of their own lives but – under the Nazis’ sippenhaft law – of their whole families as well. 

I like to think that I would have been so brave. Yet I find it hard sometimes simply to stand up for what I believe in. 

And would I risk my children’s lives, my parents’ lives, the lives of all my dear beloved ones, to do so? I don’t know. I hope so. For one thing I have realized acutely since writing this book is that each one of us must stand up for what is right. Some things really are worth fighting for, and dying for. 





How implicated are those who do just keep their heads down when such awful things are happening?

In a way, this was one of the questions that tormented me the most while researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN. 

It is very easy to become absorbed in your own busy life, hardly aware of what is happening outside our own small circle of influence. Wars and famines and atrocities can happen in the world, and barely make a dent in our consciousness. Sometimes, we are dreadfully sorry for what is happening. We wish there was something we could do. Other times, we know, but experience a kind of compassion fatigue, and a diffusion of responsibility. Someone else will help, we think. I’ve got a lot on right now. 

I can understand such thoughts and feelings because I have been guilty of them all. 

We can look back in time and be horrified that a Jewish refugee ship was shot at when it tried to land in Florida in 1939. The 900-odd refugees on that ship were forced to return to Europe, where many later died in concentration camps. It seems a shameful failure of compassion. Yet similar scenes of pragmatic cold-heartedness are happening on our own shores now.  

In future years, will we be trying to excuse our leaders’ actions by saying ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t know’? 



And, at this point in time at least, we do not have to fear our doors being smashed down by the Gestapo, and our loved ones being dragged off to concentration camps. We do not have to fear torture, slavery and a slow cruel death. 
If we do not like the way our country is run, we can vote to change our government and make our displeasure felt in protests, strikes, and by raising our voices. 

I would do almost anything to save my children from harm. I can understand how so many people turned their faces away, and pretended not to see. I can understand how tongues would be turned to stone, and hearts would be padlocked shut. 

Yet to understand such behavior is not to condone it. 

I’ve been telling people – only half joking – that writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN triggered an existential crisis in me. I have always thought deeply about the big ontological questions, and explored them in my fiction (its one reason why I love fantasy, a narrative form that embraces Big Thinking.)

But the tragic story of the German underground resistance has made me think a lot about the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be one or the other. And that old adage that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is true.

So I want to make sure I do something. 

Since writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN I have tried hard to be braver and more outspoken, and to stand up for what I believe to be right. I am trying to do more to help others who are in need and suffering. I am trying even harder to be a good person.

Because I know now that evil does exist – and that we must always fight against it. 

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