In brief: Over Easter, Sara will realise her greatest fear, stretch herself to her limits and find some solace.
The good: Well researched and a taut thriller as the possibility of murder is raised.
The not-so-good: I found this quite dark compared to other novels of Kate Forsyth’s (not a bad thing, just different).
Publisher: Vintage Australia (Random House)
Setting: Eastern Australia
My rating: 8 out of 10
Last year I went to an author talk by Kate Forsyth even though I hadn’t read any of her books. She was so lovely to talk to and so engaging, I immediately devoured Bitter Greens. I was so excited to see she had a book out this year, which is her first novel (published originally under her maiden name) with some reworking. Kate mentioned that she started this book at 16 in an exercise book, rewrote it for her Masters and published it ten years after that. I am awed and astounded at her talent at such a young age! This novel is dark, complex and incredibly well researched. It demonstrates an innate grasp of human nature and the demons and angels that drive us.
The novel takes place primarily over the Easter long weekend. The protagonist is Sara; a young lady who hasn’t left the family farm for five years after an event left her too scared and embarrassed to leave. The farm is situated on the New South Wales coastline and the family enjoy their own beach and a house with a tower to live in. It should be idyllic, but the Sanchez family is haunted by demons. After the death of her mother, Sara and her brothers and half-sister are splintered as their artist father becomes even more erratic. When he goes missing, nobody seems too bothered initially, but Sara knows there’s something more happening. Augusto is found on a cliff’s ledge, badly hurt. How did he get there? Will all the secrets of the Sanchez family become unravelled, and will Sara find salvation in the fallout?
Dancing on Knives is has strong Gothic elements in its telling – the weather is wild (it helped that my weather outside while I was reading this was similar) and there are powerful passions, deceptions and secrets that rise to the surface just when you think you’ve got the Sanchez family figured out. There are also lavish descriptions of Spanish food, which provided mouth-watering relief to the suspense elements. The suspense is not just about how Augusto was injured, but why Sara has chosen to hide herself away on the farm and the loss of her identity as she becomes nothing but housekeeper for the family. As the story progresses, we see Sara getting stronger and regaining her confidence and the reason why she refuses to leave the farm. (The flashback where Augusto tells Sara what her thinks of her art is particularly painful and cruel – I wanted to give her a big hug. How can a father be so vile?)
The narrative of this novel moves back and forth between the past, but I could always tell where we were in the story. The past events retold, from Sara’s grandmother’s stories and cooking to Augusto’s affairs help to enrich the story, in particular the way the Sanchez family is seen as broken and damaged. The ending is shocking but there is some happiness in store for Sara. I felt confident that she would rise above her fears to become her own woman.
Dancing on Knives is quite different to Bitter Greens, but both shine in the detail in which the story is told and the research is evident. If you’re after a dark, suspenseful book with twisted family dynamics, I’d certainly recommend Dancing on Knives. It shows what a dynamic author Kate Forsyth is. I’m looking forward to reading The Wild Girl soon.