The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne
Orbit, pb, £7.99
Reviewed by Rym Kechacha
Rapunzel as a tale was collected and written by the Brothers Grimm, though variations of the story date much earlier. It’s become one of the more common fairytales we tell in childhood and beyond, and I suspect that’s because of the striking central image of a long rope of hair hanging from a high window in an eerie tower. It speaks to us in the hidden language of symbol and myth of a kind of cloistered sexuality and wish fulfilment that has clearly resonated through the centuries.
The Book of Gothel, the debut fantasy novel by Mary McMyne, is blurbed as a retelling of Rapunzel, but to me, it felt somewhere between a prequel and a completely new story that weaves together history and fantasy to make something new and compelling. Haelwise lives with her mysterious mother and taciturn father in working poverty in a village in medieval Germany only just accepted. She suffers from fainting spells that exclude her and mark her as possibly demon-possessed or otherwise deeply un-Christian. Haelwise is on an archetypal journey toward becoming a wise woman, trying to get closer to her mother, solve mysteries about where she comes from and seek to further her knowledge of midwifery, herbs and healing. But she gets caught up in other people’s tragedies, including that of Rapunzel’s mother, because by walking this path, she becomes a friend and protector to all kinds of women in trouble; birthing women, those with unwanted pregnancies, those with cruel husbands, those with any kind of problem the patriarchal world can’t – and doesn’t want to – help with.
It also places her on a path towards finding out the truth about a spirituality that’s based on feminine magic and knowledge, worshipping ‘The Mother’ who represents ‘the old ways’ of more matriarchal and nature-based worship and that of Christianity which excludes the feminine and exalts the masculine Father above all else. I was fascinated by this aspect of the book as I love any kind of hint of matriarchal religion in history, although I wondered if there was an oversimplification in the way that strand of the story was written that took away from the struggles of the female characters to make their own lives in the face of masculine power. Scholars of many specialities are constantly researching and discussing when, to what extent and how female-centred worship was subjugated and subsumed by male-centred worship, and so I think this novel will give readers who are interested in those discussions something to chew on.
The setting felt impeccably researched and rooted in the instantly recognisable ‘fairytale country’ of medieval Germany in a way that wasn’t just through assumption but also through social custom, food and language. There are historical characters sprinkled in the narrative, such as the abbess and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the first and his queen Beatrice. I find when there’s this kind of fidelity to history in a fantasy or fairytale, it makes me slip between the story and reality in a really fun way, making the reading experience quite a bit richer. There’s a part of my mind – the part that still reads like I’m thirteen and sitting on my bed on a Sunday afternoon, trying to delay doing my homework – that starts to be unable to distinguish between the history and the fantasy of the story, enjoying the slip between them and making the past seem like a place of magic and mystery.
You learn things too when you let your reading mind soar this way. I never knew that Rapunzel was a plant before, but I looked it up at the end of the book and found pictures of a flower I’ve found growing in my garden this past spring, Campanula rapunculus, a kind of bellflower which is related to bluebells. Seeing that unassuming little plant, an innocent repository of folklore, right under my nose made me feel like I was falling backwards through time and stories. This, for me, is what retellings and fairytale-inspired work do. It goes some of the way towards the difficult and often nebulous work of re-enchantment of our world, from our stories to our flowers and all the ways they tangle together.