Note: Spoilers will be relegated to a “Spoiler Section” at the end of this review. Read the first half without fear.
Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl took me by surprise. Some books possess a singular kind of magic, catching you from the very first line. For me, The Wild Girl was not that book. Blame it on my being particularly distracted the day I began it; ascribe it to my being so busy, I could only read the first few chapters in five-minute increments (this is never a recipe for a well-enjoyed book)–whatever the reason, the novel’s first pages left me disengaged.
But somewhere along the way, a 180° occurred and The Wild Girl became one of those books I couldn’t stop thinking about. I was distracted at work (sorry, boss!) as I mulled over various plot-points. As I swam laps, I untangled my emotional responses to some of the more traumatic scenes. One day, I even delayed my own, jealously-guarded writing time to get a few pages further in Forsyth’s novel. The book even invaded my dreams.
Nearing the novel’s end, finding my hope for a happy outcome fading, I faced twin temptations I never feel reading fiction: A) The impulse to cheat and skip to the end and B) the lure of Wikipedia, with its ability to resolve all debate on how this piece of historical fiction closed.
Ultimately, I resisted. But it was a close thing.
Now, several weeks removed from this immersive reading experience, I find myself analyzing why this book so affected me. Part of it was surely the novel’s perfect alignment with my areas of interest. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction; The Wild Girl is set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars. I love stories revolving around all things authorial and bookish; Forsyth’s novel focuses on the Grimm Brothers and the development of their storytelling collection. I’m intrigued by incorporations of fairy tales, legends, and myths into more contemporary stories; the novel’s protagonist is Dortchen Wild, a major contributors of tales to the Grimms’ anthology. Her fairy stories, as told within the novel, are also interwoven with the main narrative which frames them. I even took a course on translating German in graduate school and cut my teeth on fragments of Grimm tales like Snow White (whose awesome? terrible? German name is Sneewittchen.) So truly, a more appropriate book for me could not have been pulled off the shelf.
But part of what makes this book so memorable, regardless of readers’ particular interests, is how adept Forsyth is at making the reader feel. It can be difficult to explain how a writer is able to achieve this quality, as it’s an elusive kind of effect. But if I had to parse it apart, I would say Forsyth’s pathos is crafted using twin tools: a sympathetic, admirable heroine, and a selection of careful details capable of speaking strongly for themselves, without augmentation with overly dramatic language.
Forsyth’s heroine Dortchen is truly a survivor (more on this in the spoiler section). What might have broken a lesser woman, she endures with strength and grace for those she loves. Yet this survival comes at a cost–Dortchen’s deep emotional scarring–and that cost is key to the successful generation of pathos.
As the reader, you are intimately seated in Dortchen’s head, with a privileged view of how remarkably she endures, given the weight of her secret trial. But Forsyth uses peripheral characters’ commentary on the change in Dortchen to show the reader how deeply she is wounded. Were she to survive perfectly, she would be a less engaging character. But because we witness equally her strength and her fragility, we are compelled to root for her to endure just a little longer. We admire her courage, but we are also aware of the precipice upon which she is balancing.
Forsyth makes equally adroit choices regarding the details she deploys throughout The Wild Girl. This novel is one that could have lent itself to graphicness or melodrama. Here, we have abuse, romance, and the Napoleonic wars to play with. Many writers–myself included–would have felt the temptation to wax poetic in attempting to communicate how deeply distressful the novel’s circumstances are.
Instead, Forsyth states things plainly, curating details that simply, powerfully evoke emotional resonance. By leaving these details unembellished with emotive language–or leaving them opaque–she invites readers to fill in the gap with their own emotional responses. This pulls readers into a more intimate, individuated interaction with the narrative. Using straightforward lines–such as mentioning Russian soldiers forcing captured enemies to walk naked through the snow–Forsyth communicates to the reader all the horror of such situations. Readers don’t have to be told of the agonizing physical and psychological effects of such treatment. They interject that emotional comprehension themselves and feel it more sharply for that self-investment. This tactic is equally effective in portraying both the large scale horror of war and Dortchen’s more private demons.
In short, this is a deftly-written novel I would highly recommend, particularly for lit nerds, Grimm fans, and fairy tale junkies. But readers are perhaps owed a warning label: some rather dark material lurks within. The Wild Girl is truly a reflection of the Alice Hoffman quote that opens it:
“Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws.”
The very few plot elements that tripped me up:
No. 1–Forsyth’s Dortchen and Willem Grimm have a love-at-first-sight romance… at least from Dortchen’s perspective. From the moment she sees the much older Willem, she knows her love for him is a forever kind of love. But as she’s 12 at the time, I found this a bit hard to swallow. Perhaps I’m unfairly judging a Victorian-era character by modern standards, but while I can easily imagine a 12-year-old having a potent crush on a young man, I find it less believable that she would have the self-aware, self-confident kind of love Dortchen is portrayed as possessing. As the novel progresses, however, with Dortchen aging and she and Willem moving into a mutual romance, the relationship does become compelling.
No.2–I found the last 70 pages of the novel dragged a bit. For most of the narrative, Dortchen’s father stands a terrifying obstacle to her and Willem’s marriage. But after Dortchen’s father dies, there ensues a long, often-repetitious sequence where Willem repeatedly approaches Dortchen about marriage and she repeatedly rebuffs him (though still in love with him). The reason given for her rejection–despite the removal of every hindrance to their marrying–is the trauma from the incestuous abuse she received from her father. (This abuse–a narrative invention of Forsyth’s–is also used, quite cleverly, to explain some variances between editions of the Grimms’ tales). Certainly, this a sympathy-inducing reason for her to turn down Willem’s proposal. But the length of this section eventually began to make me feel less sympathetic for Dortchen, and more frustrated by her rashly throwing off happiness.
Forsyth’s afterword does explain the historical predicament that led her to pen this semi-unwieldy sequence. It is a historical fact that Willem and Dortchen’s marriage didn’t occur until 10 years after her father’s death. Unable to alter this timeline, Forsyth created a compelling reason for this delay. But a more succinct treatment of this part of the story might have made it less frustrating and redundant to read.