Joelene Reviews: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

yolen_briar roseAll of her life, Becca’s grandmother, Gemma, has told her the tale of Briar Rose. But this tale is not like the original. In Gemma’s tale only Briar Rose awakens from her hundred years of enchanted sleep.

As Gemma ages, she becomes convinced that she is the princess in that magical fairy tale. Before she dies she asks Becca to promise that she will find the truth behind her story. Without even knowing her grandmother’s real name, that promise is going to be almost impossible to keep. It is a vow that will take Becca far from home in search of castles, princes, and something much darker.

There’s something about fairy tales that draws people to them – and when fairy tales are re-imagined in modern skins, they become even more compelling; a classical story that everyone knows, but with more complex emotions and a possible twist. In Briar Rose, Yolen puts the traditional fairy tale grimness back into the story. Rather than the story serving as a vague morality tale, Yolen links it to the Holocaust to devastating effect.

The way the characters are portrayed when confronted with dire circumstances is at the emotional heart of this novel. There were heroes during the Holocaust but most of the people involved were just trying to survive to the best of their, often limited, ability. Yolen shows this: the men and women who took last stands – not because they thought that they could make a difference but to do something other than starve or freeze; the people who thought that war couldn’t affect them before they were proved wrong and dragged into the violence they had tried to ignore.

Despite the fact that this book is over twenty years old, there is so much in it that is ahead of its time. It’s centred on the relationship between two women, with Becca taking up a quest that her grandmother could not. The novel doesn’t boil the Holocaust down to being a tragedy that only affected Jews either. The other groups that were prosecuted are present.

While Gemma’s story – and the stories of those around her are captivating, Becca’s tends to drag. Her safe existence can’t compare with Gemma’s perilous one. Becca is needed as a framing device to the story, but I rushed through most of the scenes set in the present day.

The thing I love most about retold fairy tales is that – if done well – all of the emotional complexity that is missing from the original is worked into the retelling. In Briar Rose, the emotional impact is shattering. It’s the kind of fairy tale that needs to be told: one with history, depth and compassion. One that was an unfortunate reality for far too many people.

Briar Rose – Jane Yolen

Tor (1992)


ISBN: 9780765342300

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