Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Published : Tor, 1992
Awards Nominated : Nebula, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards
The Book :
”The fairy tale Briar Rose held a special significance to Becca’s grandmother, Gemma. She told it constantly to her grandchildren, and it became clear that she considered herself the princess in the story. Though her telling differed in some respects to the commonly accepted version, Rebecca always preferred to hear the story from her grandmother.
When Gemma died, Becca and her family realized that they knew very little about her. Her life before she arrived in the United States during WWII was shrouded in mystery, to the point where her family didn’t even know her original name. Rebecca has few clues to work with, but she’s determined to uncover the mystery of her grandmother’s past.” ~Allie
While Briar Rose does contain a retelling of the fairy tale, it is primarily the story of a young woman learning about her grandmother’s experiences during the Holocaust. Becca and the personal history she uncovers are fictional, but her grandmother’s life story is set amidst the actual events of that era. More information about the particular location featured in the story can be found here. The story seems to be written for a young adult audience, though some of the details of Gemma’s past are quite graphic (due to the subject matter). While there are plenty of books based on authors’ experiences from this period of history (Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, and others), I appreciate that fiction can also be used to bring the past to life for readers. Like most people, I believe that learning about and trying to understand the darker parts of human history is very important, so that these kinds of atrocities might never be repeated.
Unfortunately, I was not very impressed with Briar Rose as a novel, mostly because the characters seemed rather flat to me. While all of the characters were adults, many of them seemed to behave as though they were in their early teen years. This was especially noticeable with Becca and her two older sisters. Becca’s older sisters were described as personally and professionally successful adult women, but they didn’t seem to have matured past their behavior in childhood flashbacks. Becca was in her early twenties, and she lived with her parents while working for an alternative newspaper. She seemed very sheltered and inexperienced, and her “crush” subplot seemed strangely juvenile for an adult woman. To me, none of the characters really seemed to grow or change much, or even to be further developed beyond their initial introduction.
The story can be broken down into three parts: the fairy tale, the modern story, and Gemma’s story. The fairy tale is told through a series of flashbacks to Becca’s childhood. There was generally roughly a line or two of the fairy tale per flashback, before Becca or her sisters interrupted their grandmother. I had hoped there would be a point where the story was told from start to finish, perhaps after hearing the true story of Gemma’s life. Gemma’s story could have been haunting, but her words were constantly drowned out by children bickering.
The modern story was the tale of Becca searching for her grandmother’s past. I suppose there wasn’t much room for false leads, given the length of the novel, but the course of the investigation seemed a little too coincidentally easy. It was never really in doubt that she would track down her grandmother’s story, and there weren’t any major obstacles in her way. As a result, Becca’s story never felt especially compelling in its own right, and seemed to be just an overly long set-up for the eventual reveal of her grandmother’s story.
The story of the past that Becca eventually tracks down makes up the third section of the book. Despite knowing roughly how everything would turn out, I found this to be the most narratively interesting portion of the book. The person who related the story to Becca was also the most engaging character, probably because of the insight into his life that the story provided. In broad strokes, it was quite easy to tell what kind of story Becca was going to uncover, and there weren’t any major twists along the way. While it was interesting to see the details cleared up, it didn’t seem to me like Becca gained much understanding of who her grandmother was as a person.
My Rating: 2.5/5
As a novel, Briar Rose was something of a disappointment. I felt that the characters lacked depth, and did not seem to grow much through the events of the story. The plot was also extremely straightforward and predictable, so that Becca's success seemed like a foregone conclusion. Therefore, the part of the story featuring Becca's search seemed to drag. I think it was an interesting idea to incorporate the fairy tale of Briar Rose into a story about the Holocaust, but it didn’t seem to mesh as well as I had hoped.