Kell Woods – After the Forest

Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, Australia, 2023
Cover design and illustrations by Andrew Davis

It would do this luscious book a disservice to describe it as a retelling of a fairy tale. After the Forest is a beautifully written historical fantasy which plumbs the depths of human psychology and experience.

Kell Woods talks to Barbie about After the Forest

The author’s command of words and creation of visuals is sheer delight for the reader, an instant sense-shocking plunge into the Black Forest, its secrets and stories.

Drawing on the story of Hansel and Gretel, the author posits a world in the 1600s after their forest experience with the witch, when they are grown up. She muses upon what the effects of their traumatic experiences with the witch and her gingerbread house might be.

Behind this story of village life and witch trials, crop failures and evil aristocracy, she gives us another fairy story, that of Snow White and Rose Red – not the glossy version modern audiences think they know, but an account of fierce jealousy and merciless viscousness and self-interest.

This story’s heroine is Greta, a strong but wounded young woman who has taken from the forest witch a magic book, which is in fact the embodiment of witch herself. It helps her in the seemingly harmless task of baking irresistible gingerbread. This craft has sustained Greta as she struggles in hard economic times to make a living for herself and her profligate brother Hans – clearly wounded in his own way by his childhood trauma.

Around Greta there are both comforts and threats and she is sorely tempted by the ‘book’ to step up the magic for her own gain. She learns the truth of her benefactor Rob, of the wolves that plague the land around the village, of the bear to whom she is deeply attracted in a forest meeting and of her own story.

Students of Jungian fairy tale theory will find much to chew on in this superbly spun yarn. Indeed we are ever conscious of the archetypal struggle between good and evil.

There is the big evil of cruel and powerful rulers but then there is the creeping evil of mob mentality and of the temptation to use one’s special powers for self-interest, the lurking evil within us all. Here is the big moral question that hangs over the whole story.

I am avoiding too much plot detail for fear of spoiling the drama for readers, but it is important to say that this is also a love story. Greta, who is in so much need of love, does find it, passing through romance fiction’s expected vicissitudes of the ‘true love never did run smooth’ trope. In essence though, it is her great courage, both physical and moral, that carries her to this beautiful place.

Indeed, this is a story ripe with the feminine. Primal forces for good and evil compete in feminine form – not just Greta but also Mira with her powerful greenwitchery and Elizabeth with her overweening ambition and cruelty.

The mothering Greta and Hans missed through circumstance is nevertheless ever present in our minds as an object of loss. Hans is led astray not merely by his weakness and base jealousy but by a young blond temptress.

There is also attention paid to the various contrasting male figures of Hans, Rob, Mathias, Herr Hueber, the dwarf Fizco, Conran, Christoph and Greta and Hans’ late father, but it is the women who propel the action and ultimate resolution, and the monumental battles between the forces of good and evil.

Kell Woods has conjured her book world so dazzlingly that as readers we hesitate to leave. Her prose demonstrates a love of words we expect from poets, and hence a capacity to make images so vivant that we are perfectly inside the heads and eyes of her book people. It’s brilliant writing which evokes the place and time with startling clarity and which draws us wholly into the fiction.

One awaits with eager anticipation the next of this author’s works.

Thank you to HarperCollinsPublishers, for my review copy and to Kell for speaking with me about the significance and lure of fairy tales and about this sumptuous book.