The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

the blue rose.jpgTitle: The Blue Rose

Author: Kate Forsyth

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Vintage/Penguin Random House

Published: 16th July 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.

Viviane de Faitaud has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau’s orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau’s new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.
David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry, and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family. Angry and embittered, David sails away from England with Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, who hopes to open up trade with Imperial China.

In Canton, the British embassy at last receives news from home, including their first 2019 Badgereports of the French Revolution. David hears the story of ‘The Blue Rose’, a Chinese fable of impossible love, and discovers the blood-red rose growing in the wintry garden. He realises that he is still in love with Viviane and must find her.

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Every two years, I eagerly await the new Kate Forsyth book for adults. Usually, this is a fairy tale infused historical fiction, and usually takes inspiration of fairy tales from the European canon, by authors and collector’s such as The Brothers Grimm or lesser known French authors, such as Charlotte Rose de la Force. The Blue Rose, Kate’s 2019 release, is based on a Chinese folk tale of the same name, based around the idea of making the unattainable a possibility. Using this folk tale as her basis, Kate sets her story during the French Revolution, and the discovery of a blood-red rose, discovered in China in 1792 and taken back to Europe.

Starting in 1788, not long before the beginning of the French Revolution, Kate’s story begins with Viviane, daughter of a marquis, meeting a gardener, David Stronach, one of the many historical personages who appear in the novel – whilst Viviane and her family are amongst the only fictional characters who appear. David is tasked with designing a garden for Viviane’s father, and the two form a friendship that blooms into love as the world around them starts to rumble towards a revolution that will change France forever.

When Viviane’s father discovers David and his daughter wish to marry, he drives David away, tells Viviane he is dead and marries her off to a Duke and sends her off to Versailles with her new step-mother to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette. Slowly, the rebellions begin to whittle away at the aristocrats, or aristos as they are referred to, and Viviane’s husband is killed. As the revolution moves forward, and Louis, Marie-Antoinette and their children are moved away from Versailles, the upper class are arrested, put on trial and guillotined, David travels to China in search of the blood-red rose.

While Viviane lives in constant threat of being arrested, and guillotined as many people are day after day, she takes refuge as a scullery-maid. David travels to China, where he learns about their culture, and legends of roses and love. Both thinks the other is dead as news trickles slowly back to David about the revolution through his travels. Viviane listens to the daily guillotining of many people, just waiting for her time, and hoping Pierrick, the son of a staff member from her childhood home will find her.

As the book moves between revolutionary France and David’s travels to and around China, the plot is richly gown and told through the characters and history of both countries – Revolutionary France and Imperial China, where traditional practices such as foot binding shock David and the crew, as they have never seen or heard of it before. Kate deftly reflects the reality of shock on David’s part, but uses the Chinese characters such as Father Li that he interacts with to explain what it means culturally. She manages to communicate cultural communication in an exceptional way, and in a way that the reader can understand, but that also reflects not only the different cultures, but the times in which the people lived, whilst still showing each character as an individual in their own right.

Kate is, to me, a genius when it comes to historical fiction, because she gets the balance just right. The characters are flawed and well-rounded, they are individuals who suit their setting and plot, and she infuses her historical setting with fairy or folk tales exceptionally well. When she describes the smells, sights and sounds of revolution and the guillotine, it feels like, as the reader, I was in France at the time. Kate makes it all feel so real, that you can feel the fear, wonder and everything in between as it unfolds on the page. And in China, it was the same, and the feelings of uncertainty filtered throughout both too: what was going to happen, what was it going to be like? This, as well as Kate’s ability to end a chapter or section with a mystery to come, are the things that have me coming back to her books each time one comes out. She pulls together history and mystery in a magical way, where, whilst a love story, is rich with how the historical setting affects the characters, and what they have to go through to survive, to live. The romance is the reward, but the journey is the richness of the story that makes it the romance so satisfying.

I look forward to every Kate Forsyth release, and try to get them all. A new Kate Forsyth book is always a highlight for me and will hopefully be re-reading many of her books very soon.

Into the World by Stephanie Parkyn

into the worldTitle: Into the World

Author: Stephanie Parkyn

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st December 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 448

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Abandoned by her lover and fleeing the wrath of her family, Marie-Louise must make a desperate choice. Find a man or become one.

  1. In the midst of the French Revolution, unwed mother Marie-Louise Girardin takes one last look at her baby son before entrusting him to her friend, the revolutionary Olympe de Gouges. She must escape, and only the most daring plan will bring her both the anonymity she needs and the independence to return one day for her son.Marie-Louise disguises herself as a man and joins a voyage of exploration employed as a steward on the Recherche, one of two ships commissioned to journey to the Great Southern Ocean to find the missing explorer La Perouse.

    Protecting her identity throughout, Marie-Louise forms friendships among the eccentric naturalists. But tensions rise between the royalist officers and the revolutionaries, and Marie-Louise’s position becomes precarious when she discovers someone on board knows the secrets of her past. When the expedition docks in Java, chaos erupts as they learn of King Louis XVI’s execution and are imprisoned by the Dutch. Marie-Louise seems certain to be unmasked. Will she ever return to France and be reunited with her child?

    Inspired by a true story, Into the World is a compelling novel of the amazing life of Marie-Louise Girardin battling perilous seas, her own self-doubt, and finding unforeseen loves on a journey to reclaim her child.

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Marie-Louse Giradin lives in a time of turmoil, where revolutionaries – the Jacobins – and royalists, the supporters of Louis XIV and his Austrian queen, Marie-Antoinette, are at loggerheads as the Jacobins petition for the removal of the King, and a new, more egalitarian government. In 1791, Marie-Louise finds herself alone, and a single mother, she fled during the early days of the revolution, and found herself aboard a ship, disguised as a young man named Louis. The Recherche and the rest of their fleet are charged with finding out what happened to explorer La Pérouse. As they follow his path in the Great Southern Ocean, exploring the Cape of Good Hope, various Pacific Islands, New Holland and Van Diemen’s land, Marie-Louise must find a way to hide her true identity. Only a few senior officers know, the captain, Kermadoc and a few others, and she is at the mercy of their protection during the perilous journey that has separated her from her son. Far from home, and unaware of the dangers of the revolution, Marie-Louise is fighting her own battle – abandoning her son, and where she fits in the world. As a man, she is still mocked in some ways, and finds herself caught between the royalists and the revolutionaries aboard the ship as they navigate the Southern Hemisphere and what was at the time, in the 1790s, the unknown and exotic. Told through Marie-Louise’s eyes in third person, the reader can experience her horror at the way islander tribes and Aboriginal people are treated, and the awe that she has when coming into contact with these people who appear to be wary, but at times happy and helpful – for a woman in the 1790s to have these experiences would have been extraordinary and her reactions reflect how she coped with the unknown, whilst reflecting the attitudes of the time, and coupling them with the horrified reactions and emotional outpour from Marie-Louise.

As they journey home after their experiences in Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland, unsuccessful at finding La Pérouse, they are taken hostage in the Dutch East Indies, where they hear what has happened back home during the revolution and the end to the monarchical system. But to Marie-Louise, the fear of being unmasked and unable to return home to her son looms overhead.

aww2017-badgeIt is always refreshing to read a novel where the central female character isn’t driven by romantic love, but rather, the love for son and country, and where she heads off into the unknown because of this love. It is as much about the journey and subsequent history as it is about Marie-Louise herself, and what she went through and endured to return to France in 1793-4. A quick Google search spat back some resources from various state libraries, the national library and the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in total, 245,000 results, with the most relevant appearing to be at the top. Stephanie Parkyn’s book takes a look at Marie’s journey and what she went through, in an eloquent and interesting way, perhaps hinting at romance between another crew member and Marie-Louise, but not explicitly stating it. In doing so, Parkyn has recreated a historical figure, who, had she submitted to society’s expectations as her father demanded, might never have set foot in Australia and we might never have known her story. Stephanie’s story has provided readers with a strong, determined character who flouts convention and manages on her own, a refreshing characteristic in historical fiction, and a trend I have been observing. Allowing the characters like Marie-Louise to be strong in many ways but at the same time of their time is a feat that when done well, results in an engaging and intriguing story that sparks interest in these characters beyond the pages of the book they appear in.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which has sparked an interest in the French Revolution and finding more about Marie-Louise Giradin and her fate at the end of the expedition. Each character is a real person, giving the story a colour that ensures the history as it is retold feels as real as it would when reading about it in a history book, with a little more colour to it that is engaging and enjoyable. I found this book hard to put down, and it is one that will show what women were capable of and achieved in a time when the people around them expected less of these women.

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