BEAUTY IN THORNS by Kate Forsyth, Review: Poetic symbolism

Bestselling author Kate Forsyth’s new novel Beauty in Thorns is a spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

Beauty in Thorns Kate Forsyth

Beauty in Thorns Synopsis

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

(Vintage, Penguin)

Genre: Literature, Drama, Historical, Romance

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I am a long time fan of Kate Forsyth’s adult historical fairytale retellings (Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, The Beast’s Garden) and Beauty in Thorns is a title I have been looking forward to ever since hearing Kate speak so passionately about it at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

Firstly, do not be put off by the size of this beautiful tome. Its 480 pages just fly by… Kate’s writing style as smooth as silk. But only after I had emerged from the reading experience did I fully appreciate the artistry of this novel’s structure.

So often in times past, the narrative was dictated by and focused on the achievements of men. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are an integral and fascinating part of this story but they and their legacies were shaped by the women that inspired (and cared for, organised and championed) them. Forsyth’s decision to tell this story in the voices of four true-life women – Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter Margot – is a fitting acknowledgement and celebration of this.

The extraordinary amount of research that Kate has undertaken before putting pen to paper really shines through. In a recent interview with Australian Women Writers Kate explained her process:

I spend months and months just reading, and tracking down books and articles, and taking notes, and building timelines… I try as far as possible to assemble all the known facts, and then I try and understand the psychological motivations that drove these historical personages to act in the way they did. I never change the known facts; they are the immoveable pegs around which I weave my story. However, there are always all kinds of gaps and omissions in the historical record that leave room for imaginative play.

The depth of characterisation and story layering achieved makes for enthralling reading.

Forsyth delivers such nuance in the way each of the women approach their relationships and life’s challenges. She does not shy away from sadness and loss. If anything it is her exploration of these themes in Beauty in Thorns that make her narrative so compelling, and in context only serves to elevate that which was achieved by this pioneering group of individuals. And the interactions and linkages between this novel’s leading characters and other great influencers from that time period, incl. George Eliot and Rudyard Kipling, are amongst the many treasures to delight readers along the journey.

And lastly, the imagery within Beauty in Thorns and literary and poetic symbolism… rampant and exquisite. Need I say more?

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5  — Overall 4.75

Get your copy of Beauty in Thorns from:

Book Depository | Booktopia AU | Amazon

OR listen to the audiobook FREE with Audible’s trial (check eligibility)

About the Author, Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel at the age of seven and has since sold more than a million copies around the world. Her books include Bitter Greens, a retelling of Rapunzel which won the 2015 American Library Association Award for Best Historical Fiction; The Wild Girl, the story of the forbidden romance behind the Grimm Brothers’ famous fairy tales, which was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013; and The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ set in the underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany. Kate Forsyth’s most recent novel, The Blue Rose moves between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and was inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.

Did you know… 

  • This story was inspired by a Dante Gabriel Rosetti print that Kate discovered as a young, and destitute, student that has encouraged a lifelong passion in the Pre-Raphaelites which is evident in Kate’s writing.
  • It has been twenty years since the publication of Kate’s first book Dragonclaw and Beauty in Thorns is her fortieth book.
  • Kate spent 2 years researching, writing and redrafting this novel. This video Kate compiled gives a fascinating glimpse into the wealth of source materials she collected (incl. memoirs, poetry, artwork) and her early drafts including marginalia:

Recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists 2017, Kate Forsyth has been called ‘one of the finest writers of this generation’. She has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers.

Connect with Kate at her website and on Facebook or Twitter.

This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2017 and the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

* Receiving a copy of this novel from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.