What does a lark and a lion have to do with Nazi intelligence and German resistance in World War II?
A new Kate Forsyth novel is always something to look forward to, whether it’s an adult or children’s novel. I think this one, though, is her best yet. The Beast’s Garden is a compelling story of the outrage, fear and courage of a young woman and her friends in Berlin working against the all-powerful Nazi regime.
We first meet nineteen year old Ava on the Night of Broken Glass, when co-ordinated attacks were carried out against Jews and their property throughout Germany and Austria in November 1938. From the first line we know there will be two opposing forces in Ava’s life:
Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world.
Against the instructions of her father she leaves the safety of her home to seek out the Jewish Feidlers, who have been like a second family to her. On the way she runs into a Nazi officer, Leo, and though she hates all the Nazis stand for, she can’t forget him. It’s an encounter that changes both their lives.
Life gets more difficult as she tries to help the Feidlers and work against the Nazis. Leo works in the Abwehr, the Intelligence arm of Nazi command, and he provides some protection, but how can she keep her illicit activities secret from him? But then she discovers he abhors what is happening as much as she does, as do others in the Abwehr. They’re even plotting against Hitler. Can they succeed without being discovered and executed?
This isn’t a leisurely read; it’s compelling. I read it over a few days because I made myself put it away, do other things and read lighter books. The immersion in wartime Berlin was making me way too anxious to be able to sleep.
It’s also very real. Kate Forsyth’s research is extensive and her attention to detail is meticulous. Apart from Ava, Leo, their families and the Feidler family, everyone mentioned in the book is a real person, and the story is told within real events. The reality of such evil, the casual sadism and disregard for human life the people there faced every day is more than disturbing.
I knew very little of the German resistance before reading this book. I knew little more about plots to kill Hitler, most of it from watching the movie Valkyre. I knew virtually nothing about the Abwehr, or that some Jewish and other ‘undesirable’ people survived, homeless and hiding, in Berlin. Reading The Beast’s Garden I learned about these things and a lot more, and have been prompted to read more widely about them.
While I was reading, though, I didn’t realise how much I was learning. I was swept away by the story.
So, finally, what’s this about a lark and a lion? Kate is well known for her expertise in the lore of fairy tales (she has a doctorate in the field) and cites a Grimm Brothers tale called The Singing, Springing Lark as a favourite. It’s an extended version of Beauty and the Beast with a heroine with more action and agency than the well-known, popularised-by-Disney version. In the Grimm tale, the heroine’s father tries to capture a lark from the land of the ‘beast’, which in this version is a lion, who is an enchanted prince.
This tale provides the basic form of the The Beast’s Garden, with Leo (of course) being the lion beast who spares the life of Ava’s father, and she finds he is not such a beast at all. There is much more to the story, but – spoilers.
The title works on a number of levels which I’ll leave for you to discover, but I love that much of the novel revolves around the Tiergarten, the largest urban park in Berlin, which translates as ‘animal garden’ or ‘beast garden’. There was a small zoo at one end, but most of it was trees, paths and statues. Much of it was destroyed during bombings, and after the war it was used to grow food for a while.
This is one of those books that is not only hard to put down, but when you’ve finished you know your life has been enriched. The main characters in the novel may be fictional, but they provide a window into the lives of people who lived in the capital of Nazi power in one of the darkest times of modern European history. As a reader the question of whether you’d be able to be as courageous in the same circumstances is hard to avoid. Perhaps it’s a timely reminder to be active and outspoken about the injustices we see in our own time and place.
The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
Random House Australia
Published: 3 August 2015