Review: ‘Dancing on Knives’ by Kate Forsyth

Dancing On Knives

At twenty, Sara is tormented by an inexplicable terror so profound she hasn’t left her home in five years. Like the mermaid in the fairytale her Spanish grandmother once told her, Sara imagines she is Dancing on Knives, unable to speak. She feels suffocated by her family, especially her father – the famous artist Augusto Sanchez – whose volcanic passions dominate their lives.

Then one stormy night, her father does not come home. His body is found dangling from a cliff face. Astonishingly, he is still alive, but the mystery of his fall can only be solved by the revelation of long-held family secrets.

At once a suspenseful murder mystery and a lyrical love story, Dancing on Knives is about how family can constrict and liberate us, how art can be both joyous and destructive, and how strength can be found in the unlikeliest places.

This book was a really hard read, you guys. Really hard.

I went into it not knowing exactly what to expect. I was hoping it might be urban fantasy, given the Little Mermaid reference in the title. Kate Forsyth has written a lot of fantasy and magic realism, and Dancing on Knives could be loosely described as the latter, but it really is closer to straight adult contemporary.

I would’ve picked it up anyway, because I love Kate Forsyth, but I thought you should know, just in case that’s not your thing.

The story, told from Sara’s point of view, covers both a single Easter weekend and her entire lifetime, alternating between the two. I want to say it jumped around between times, but that might make you think it felt disjointed. It didn’t. I never had a problem following with the story, so masterfully did Kate handle the transitions. And her prose is beautiful. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful. (Also, it often made me hungry. Her descriptions of food are to die for.)

So why do I say it was a hard read? Because Sara’s life is awful. This is a girl who has hit rock-bottom, crushed by the huge, passionate and abusive personality of her father, a famous Australian-Italian painter named Augusto Sanchez. I suspect if Augusto hadn’t fallen over that cliff in the first chapter (no spoiler: it’s in the blurb), I might not have been able to finish this, as much as I adored Kate’s writing. Knowing how he ended up gave me the strength to read about how he lived until that point.

Augusto is truly awful — verbally abusive, degrading those he should uplift, womanising, drinking, wasting money while his kids struggle to make ends meet. But at the same time, during some of Sara’s flashbacks, you caught glimpses of why she stuck around, hoping for the good times to come back — in the same way an abused spouse craves the happy moments when they aren’t being thrown against a wall. She blames herself for his behaviour, because she should have known better than to do things that made him angry.

I hated him. A lot. I just wish I’d pushed him off the cliff.

Happily, in the course of figuring out what happened to her father that day, Sara also starts to find the strength to stand up for herself, and to escape her prison for good. The ending is uplifting. But I can still only give the book four stars, because reading it made me melancholy. I was sad about other things in my life, and reading Dancing on Knives to distract myself was maybe the dumbest thing I could have done at the time.

If I’d read this another time, maybe it would’ve been a five-star read. I don’t know. But if you like contemporary novels that look at hard issues with beautiful writing, this may be the one for you.

Four stars

One Comment on “Review: ‘Dancing on Knives’ by Kate Forsyth”

  1. Jess says:

    I love Kate Forsyth too. I’ve got this book sitting on my table waiting to be read and I’ve picked it up a couple of times but not made any progress with it for similar reasons. Glad I’m not alone.

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