Katherine Arden’s novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, is a brooding story.
A village at the edge of a Russian forest is a centre of a battle between the Christian faith sweeping across the land and the folklore beliefs of household spirits, witchcraft, Winter Kings and giant bears. Life seems predetermined for one little girl, Vasya, but will she choose a third option?
Most fairytales are about archetypes but the characters of The Bear and the Nightingale feel well-rounded and human, even the Winter King. This could be a much shorter story, a quick thin tale of magic and demons, of a little girl torn between two worlds, of things that lurk in the corner of the eye, but instead it lingers and matures. Pytor (the father), Sasha (a brother), Dunya (the grandmother) and Vasya, these are all names of real characters rather than the names of plot devices. Sometimes we wonder why we need to go with Pytor to Moscow, where he searches for a new wife, when we could be enjoying Vasya’s adventures more, but it adds depth so that when the tale turns stranger and darker we care for reasons beyond wonder.
Anyone looking for a quick fairytale will have to wait but by the end any such desires will be well met.
Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale reads like an old fireside tale, something to cling to in cold winter months, but it’s also a story that continues to be true, a story of a girl and the young woman she becomes trying to find her own place in the world rather than settle for one chosen for her.
A must read.
Visit http://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/libraries to reserve your copy or ask staff in your local Hillingdon Library.
By Mark Ulrich (Uxbridge Library)