Real-life terror in tales from the forest

York author Robert Dinsdale

York author Robert Dinsdale

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York-based author Robert Dinsdale’s latest novel combines elements of folk tale and historical fiction. Yvette Huddleston spoke to him.

Forests often feature in fairytales and it’s easy to see why – they have the potential to be both welcoming and protective or dark and sinister – and York-based writer Robert Dinsdale’s latest novel Gingerbread plays on that duality to quite brilliant and chilling effect.

Set in Belarus at some point in the late 20th century, the story centres on a young boy who is left in the care of his grandfather when his mother dies of cancer. The grandfather keeps a promise to his daughter, the boy’s mother, to take her ashes back to the forest cottage where she grew up – and where her own mother is also buried. It is a painful decision for the old man, who seems reluctant to return to the forest, but does so for his daughter’s sake.

“I had visited the Polish side of the Belovezhaskaya Pushcha – a forest in Belarus,”says Dinsdale. “And I was fascinated by the idea that there was this vast untouched ancient woodland that still exists in Europe. I wanted to write something about that kind of wilderness, but a very real wilderness where real terror happened.”

Told from the boy’s point of view, Gingerbread is a perfectly balanced combination of folk tale and rites-of-passage story – with Dinsdale’s eloquent writing capturing the tone and language, rhythms and cadences of ancient stories passed down from generation to generation.

As the old man and the boy become more connected with their forest home – especially when the now derelict cottage is taken over by another family and the pair have to live amongst the trees surviving on wildlife and vegetation – their sensibility gradually begins to alter and the boy sees something change in his grandfather.

Clearly haunted by a secret in his past, he is taken over by the wild and it slowly begins to dawn on the boy that his grandfather’s magical stories about “the soldiers of the Winter King” and “the great frozen city Gulag” are actually his way of trying to come to terms with some terrible real-life event.

Dinsdale’s three previous books have also all been novels set in the past but with Gingerbread he is doing something subtly different.

“I wanted to talk about how real history and myth and legend come together,” he says. “Folk tales and fairytales almost always focus on how a child finds its way through the world and are often rooted in history.”

He cites Hansel and Gretel as a perfect example which came out of the Great European Famine of the 1300s when children were frequently abandoned and left to fend for themselves. “Those fairytales have become sanitized over the years,” he says. “But that’s the feeling I wanted to get. The boy slowly begins to realise that something horrific happened.” Growing up in North Yorkshire, Dinsdale lived near some woodland that he could see from his bedroom. “It was always known as Target Wood and that was because it was used as a place for target practice by young soldiers before they were sent off to the Second World War,” he says. “I didn’t realise this until I was a teenager – for me it was just a wood to go for a stroll in, but it had actually been used for a more sinister purpose.”

Struck by a sense of history he began to imagine what it must have been like for those young men facing their own fears about what was to come and he says that he felt exactly the same way years later in the Polish Pushcha.

“I reflected on the fact that for me this was an idyllic forest walk but it was also the place where Jewish people and partisans experienced terrible things during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. It was one of those moments when your views of the world as a child are shaken – just like the boy in the novel.”

• Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale is published by HarperCollins, £14.99.

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