Monday, March 9, 2009

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.

I added this book to the my TBR list when it was reviewed by Rhinoa last year. I am pretty sure that I have also seen it around the place, and talked to a few other people about it as well. This is a Young Adult book, a story about trying to find your identity as well as a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale but instead of the Disney version that we are so familiar with these days, this tale is set in the context of the Holocaust. It was originally published as part of Terry Windling's Fairy Tale series and I have to say that if this is an example of how good that particular series is then I will be reading more of them.

The main character is Rebecca, a young journalist who has always loved listening to her grandmother Gemma's telling of the story of Briar Rose - a version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Shortly before her death, Gemma askes Becca to never forget her story and this plea is reiterated when Gemma repeats over and over "I am Briar Rose" on her deathbed. The difficult thing about never forgetting Gemma's story is that no one really knows exactly who Gemma is, what her real name is, or how it was that she came to be in America.

Not long after her grandmother's death, the family finds a wooden box that they have never seen before, and inside there are a few photos and some newspaper clippings that seem to provide some clues as to those unanswered questions. Rebecca is determined to put the pieces together and so she embarks on a journey much more haunting than she could ever have imagined, and meeting new people who can provide some kind of background to her grandmothers life. She is aided in her research by her boss. If there is one weakness with this book it is in this relationship, particularly with the ending. Perhaps this was an effort to echo a fairy tale type relationship but this is one aspect that didn't work for me.

Despite the fact that it is a relatively short book, and there is a sparsity to the writing, there is depth, there is historical detail. In short, there is a really fascinating story that is well worth reading.

It was interesting that Yolen chose to use the Chelmno extermination camp as her main prison camp setting, especially seeing as there were so few people who made it out of that camp, but perhaps that is part of the reason for doing so - the pure horror of the camp cannot be avoided when you read anything about it.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in WWII fiction.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. That book spoke to me, will put it on my to read list

  2. This was such a beautiful and moving book and I have been recommending it to everyone I meet. I am so glad you "enjoyed" it as well.

  3. That book sounds really beautiful. I'm definately going to pick it up.

  4. another book that should be on my WWII challenge reading list!