Title: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Author: Katherine Arden
Release Date: 2017
Publisher: Del Rey Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads
On a cold winter night in a northern Russian village, a mother of four dies giving birth to her fifth child: a young girl born with the promise of magic in her veins, a predetermined fate nipping at her heels.
So begins the tale of Vasilia Petrovna, a wild, willful child who grows into a spirited, brave young woman. Arden tells her story slowly, gradually, from birth to adulthood, but the narrative is no less compelling for it. Arden wields words like a painter, crafting a lush atmosphere that makes you feel warm, as though you are reading a book by the fire. That is what I first noticed about this book; it immediately drew me in and made me feel cozy.
Despite the third person semi-omniscient narration, I was able to get a good sense of the characters. I usually despise this type of narration, especially when viewpoints flit between characters in a single chapter as they did here, but Arden does this masterfully. Nowhere did I feel that her writing did not cohere beautifully. The sweeping fairy tale feel evoked by the narration does not take away from the characters, each of whom comes to life in their own way.
Vasya is the strongest character of them all, a girl so strange and willful as to be branded a witch by her village. Born with the ability to see domovoi, her friendship with these strange Russian spirits is a direct contrast to her step-mother’s terror of them. Anna, whom Vasya’s father marries at the behest of his prince, is gifted with the sight as well, but unlike Vasya she fears the domovoi “demons” so much that she is constantly on the precipice of madness. She finds solace only in church, where domovoi cannot enter, and so when an egotistical young priest named Konstantin is sent to Vasya and Anna’s village, Anna latches onto him and his fear-mongering.
Konstantin the priest is a fascinating character; holy and devout but arrogant and vain. He lives for the love of the people and nurtures a desire to be worshiped by them. At the same time he is tormented by his desire for Vasya, whose willful spirit both tempts him and infuriates him. Throughout his years in her life he alternates between love and hatred of her, and he stokes the villagers’ suspicions of her, cementing her as an unholy witch in their minds.
But Vasya is protected by her family, among them her father Pyotr, an honest, hard-working, honorable man who wields an iron fist of justice. Though he loves his daughter he is frustrated by her strangeness, her unwillingness to fit in the world, the way she throws off the shackles of womanhood in medieval Russia. Alongside Vasya as an ally is her older brother Alyosha, whose love for and protectiveness of his sister shone through more than any of his other traits, making him a memorable character in his own right. Even Irina, Anna’s daughter and Vasya’s half-sister, who could have been merely an afterthought, grows in complexity as she breaks away from her mother’s hold and comes to ally with her sister in small but significant ways.
This tale is steeped in Russian folklore, the remote, pastoral setting lending a mythical feel to the story. Like most fairy tales Arden’s tale reads like magical realism. Christian reality integrates seamlessly with Russian folklore, all coming to a head in the climax of the novel, in which Vasya finally confronts the evil that has been haunting her village and maddening Konstantin the priest, making him believe he was listening to the voice of his God.
This is a delightful tale steeped in richness and atmosphere. The evocative moods shift from tense and terrifying to comedic to uplifting, conveying the various tenors the harsh northern setting itself evokes. This is something else I must mention: Arden writes of the seasons with such utter grace, illuminating the icy danger of winter as much as the heavy heat of summer. Her lyrical descriptions are bursting with vivid color, which boosts the novel immensely, as the setting is such a significant part of the narrative.
This has been one of my favorite reads of this year: comforting, thrilling, inspiring, and utterly beautiful.