Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Rating: 4.5 Stars
“But the rip in her blouse was large, her hunger vast, and her patience negligible even under better circumstances.”
Dear fellow Babblers,
The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of a fairy tale come true. So we expect a beautiful maiden riding out to her castle in the sunset with her prince charming – happily ever after, right? Not in the least bit correct. This novel cradles the dangers that lurk behind old time Russian fairytales. This book is at once suspenseful and surreal. I was carried away by Arden’s lyrical prose from the very first page. Arden shows us the dark hidden secrets behind the folktales we grow up with through a young girls fight both for the peace and harmony of her people, and against the fierce winds of evil lurking around it at midwinter.
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Told through evocatively translucent lyricism The Bear and the Nightingale illustrates the birth, childhood, and adolescence of Russian girl living in medieval times on the outskirts of Moscow, Vasya. She is the girl that everyone in the village finds rough, peculiar and looks at her as though she is a witch. Well, perhaps she is. Her father, Pyotr, is unable to tame or control her, therefore acquiescing to her rowdiness and questionable antics. Vasya grows up without a mother, who died giving birth to her. Dunya, her nurse serves as mother figure to Vasya who, like many of the villagers, loves hearing Dunya’s old Russian fairytales by the fire every night.
Little does Vasya know that she harbors enchanting powers will only become revealed upon her confrontation with fear. She has three brothers and one sister, and Vasya’s birth is the one to set her mother, Mariana’s feeble body into the corpse. However, this is just as Marina had wished, longing for a daughter who would live reflectively of her own mother who was a witch.
Vasya’s first encounter with fear occurs early on when she runs into the forest to eat her stolen honey cake. Quickly lost in the vastness of the deep woods, she comes across a massive oak which she has never once seen before. Lying beneath its branches is a cryptic, skeleton-like one-eyed man with a strangely startling expression. It is cold, beginning to snow, and deadly scary in the woods and all Vasya wants is to go home. However this man attempts to lure her into his shaky arms and would have succeeded if not for a shadowed figure on horseback who quickly and conveniently, rides into the scene – the perfect opportunity for Vasya to free herself of the man’s grasp and flee back home.
Years go by in a monotone-like peace just as long as the house spirits are fed, taken care of and worshiped, just like God. With the arrival of Vasya’s stepmother Anna, and the inscrutable priest Konstantin the life and happiness that Vasya once knew to be hers is called into question and put on the forefront of fatal danger. Anna and Konstantin look down upon Vasya’s rough edges and affinity for the woods, believing that she holds the spirit of a demon and her only hope of salvation lies in taking vows at a convent. The priest quickly turns the village into bitter and fatal fear, exactly what makes for the perfect recipe to disaster. Anna forbids fairytales and the worshipping of the mythical spirits that protect their houses, stables, supplies – their life.
As dark magic begins to sew its’s roots into the very core of the village’s life, Vasya is the only one who can save her people from what they fear most: fear. It is this – fear – that welcomes evilness and opens corpses, bringing the dead back to life. Vasya demonstrates both courage and strength, remaining faithful to what she knows best: fairytales. Her belief and stark hardheadedness is all that can prevent the dark spirits and death from growing stronger and destroying her family entirely.
Reading this book I felt instantly transported into a surreally vivid universe. The deeply moving descriptions had me forgetting for pages at a time that I was, in fact, only reading. That’s how real this book was for me. I entered into medieval Russia during midwinter and felt the bitter cold gnawing at my cheeks. I felt the hunger pains during a season where food becomes scarce. And what’s more, I felt the fear of the villagers as well as the bravery of Vasya as she struggles on her own to protect the lives and land that she knows and loves most.
Brimming with lore and imagination The Bear and the Nightingale exceeded all my expectations and prior definition of what could be thought of as a fairytale. We are not given the typical Disney romance and happily ever after. In this novel people die, are turned against one another, and must suffer prolonged pain for only a temporary promise of bliss. There really is no happy ending her. Everything spirals and gets lost in the woods along with the winter wind. This book shows, even the most romantic of readers that fairytales are not always a happy prance through butter and cream fields; they can be dark, perilous, and altogether rotten. There is no love to bring glory back to the “kingdom.” There is only courage and defiance that can alleviate fear.
I absolutely adored this book beyond my wildest imagination. I found myself lost in a fantasy, but at the same time uniquely reminded of reality and the brutality that hides in the most nuanced of places. Any book that can bring me at the same time closer and further from truth is automatically a masterpiece. Vasya’s character is one that will remain with me. Her heroism and daring spirit wonderfully coalesced with the stubborn haughtiness of her stepmother and the priest who seek to bring religious order and fear into a mythical sort of society where the “old ways” – worshipping of multiple spirits – promises peace and safety.
I can immediately look at this title again one day and see it as a classic and a tale to tell to my own children and grandchildren. Though I was never lucky enough to grow up part of a culture where mythology and old wives tales were part of tradition, I nonetheless immediately felt the certain sense of nostalgia for my childhood, simply reading and truly believing in fantastical worlds and possibilities. The magic and eventful conflicts that Arden weaves into her debut novel is masterful and, in my opinion, belongs on the shelves alongside our most beloved classics of the age.
(Book image credits go to Goodreads)