When no one was looking I snuck in a total pleasure read – an impulse purchase on my ipad – one of Amazon’s “Best Books of January.” I succumbed to the temptation of The Bear and The Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (think Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book). Set in a deep mythic past – in this case, 14th century Russia – The Bear and the Nightingale lives in the “small but mighty space where fantasy and literary fiction can clasp hands and create a brilliant story that resonates in the soul,” writes Adrian Liang at Omnivoracious. Something goes a bit awry towards the end, but more on that later.
The Bear and The Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a “black-haired girl-child” born to a Boyar lord, Pyotr, and his wife, Marina, in the deep north woods of ancient ‘Rus. It gives nothing away to tell you that Marina dies in childbirth, leaving Pyotr to raise Vasya and her older siblings. Pyotr knows she is different from the start – quiet and obedient, as a girl-child must be, but with a wildness and otherworldliness that is never entirely hidden. Vasya sees things others don’t, things she recognizes from tales told around the fire, the old gods of hearth, home and forest. When the village starts to come unhinged following the arrival of a charismatic priest from far-away Moscow, Vasya’s story becomes even more tightly intertwined with the old gods. Her life, and her family’s, are at stake.
In the first two thirds of this novel, plot and poetry intertwine…
“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six’ weeks fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage…”
“The snow hurried down like tears…”
“The years slipped by like leaves…”
Relationships in this book are real, both timeless and firmly rooted in their (mythic) time and place. Dunya, the grandmotherly nurse who raised both Vasya and her mother, tells stories by the fire and nurtures both mind and spirit of the children in her care. Pyotr takes a second wife who treats Vasya poorly. Vasya and her brothers and sister squabble and aggravate and love each other to the ends of the earth. Konstantin, the gorgeous priest, struggles with his feelings for Vasya and his desire to serve his God. There is poetic truth in these relationships equal to the masterfully poetic descriptions of the natural world so prevalent in much of the novel.
By the end, however, the poetry has almost disappeared, in its place a fast-moving plot that feels hurriedly out of keeping with the pace and tone initially set. It was disconcerting (isn’t this what an editor is for – to keep this sort of thing from happening?) That being said, I didn’t stop reading and in fact had a hard time putting it down at all. I cared about the characters, and I wanted to know what happened next! I love a wintry world where the old gods are still at work and a girl can find her way to power through bravery, smarts, and good deeds. It helps to be wild and beautiful, obedient and also disobedient. (I’ve never outgrown fairy tales.)
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Want more? Check out a beautiful review here at NPR. https://www.npr.org/2017/01/22/507161962/the-bear-and-the-nightingale-is-a-rich-winters-tale
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Wait for it: ALSO THIS!!
“Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.” (Description from his website)
I think I know what I’m reading next. (After finishing Transit and Swing Time…)
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Image of nightingale: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_zakharovaleksey’>zakharovaleksey / 123RF Stock Photo</a>