The Bear and The Nightingale
By Katharine Arden
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift - a precious jewel on a delicate chain,intended for his young daughter.
Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
This book is one of my favourite reads this year without a doubt and at about 60% of the way through I became sad because I knew it was going to be finished soon. Only the books I really love make it to my bookshelf permanently and this will be one of them.
I love Russian literature so as soon as I read the blurb for this book I knew I had to get a copy to review.
Set in winter, in Northern Russia, this is the perfect read for when it’s cold outside. The book begins with the lines “It was late winter in northern ‘Rus, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.” The rest of the book continues to beautifully describe the harsh, wintery conditions and contains a series of intriguing characters from Russian folk tales.
The opening scene of the book has the children gathering around the fire to listen to a tale from Dunya.
“No one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even wistfully of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story…that evening, the old lady was sat in the best place for talking, in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven.”
As she is about to start the children’s mother, Marina, who Dunya also used to look after, appears in the doorway. Marina requests the story of Keruchan, the frost demon and winter-king.
“In Russia, frost was called Marozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Keruchan, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night, it was an ill-omened word and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip.”
Dunya begins to weave a story about a beautiful girl whose jealous stepmother convinces her father to leave her in the woods as a bride for the winter god. All the while she is secretly hoping the girl will die instead. The tale is just one of many fascinating tales within the book.
Dunya tells the children about the winter god during the tale;
“some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs, others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice.”
The children’s father Pyotr Vladimirovich was a great lord, “a boyar, with all lands and many men to do his bidding. It was only by choice that he passed his nights with his labouring stock.” Pyotr is a very likable character and clearly cares about his wife and children as well as his livestock.
Pyotr is concerned about Marina’s health and is more concerned than happy when he discovers that she is pregnant again. He is even more concerned when Marina tells him, “I want a daughter like my mother was.”
Marina tells Pyotr, “She had gifts that I have not, I remembered her in Moscow the noble women whispered. But power is a birthright to the women of her bloodline, why Olga did not inherit these gifts, but this one will be different.”
Pyotr is knows very little about Marina’s mother as she and Dunya speak about her only rarely. The rumours said
“a ragged girl rode through the kremlin gates alone except for her tall grey horse. Despite filth and hunger and weariness, rumours dogged her footsteps. She had small graces, the people said, and eyes like the swan-maiden in a fairy tale…The princess would not say where she had come from: not then and not ever. The serving women murmured that she could tame animals, dream the future, and summon rain.”
Dunya is similarly concerned,
“Your mother! The ragged maiden who rode alone out of the forest? Who faded to a dim shadow of herself because she could not bear to live her life behind Byzantine screens? Have you forgotten that grey crone she became? Stumbling veiled to church? Hiding in her room, eating until she was round and greasy with her eyes all blank? Your mother. Would you wish that on any child of yours?”
Vasya was a child of winter from the beginning,
“The first screaming winds of November rattled the bare trees on the day Marina’s pains came on her, and the child’s first cry mingled with their howl. Marina laughed to see her daughter born. ‘Her name is Vasilisa,’ she said to Pyotr, ‘my little Vasya.’
The wind dropped at dawn. In silence, Marina breathed out once, gently and died.”
Vasya was by far my favourite character in this novel.
“Vasilisa Petrovna was an ugly little girl: skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet. Her eyes and mouth were too big for the rest of her…But the child’s eyes were the colour of the forest during a summer thunderstorm and her wide mouth was sweet. She could be sensible when she wished – and clever – so much so that her family looked at each other, bewildered, each time she abandoned sense and took yet another madcap idea into her head.”
Vasya loves nothing more than to disappear into the forest for hours at a time. There she spends time talking to creatures of Russian myths and legends. They are referred to at various times throughout the book, sometimes as demons, sometimes as old gods depending on who is referring to them.
One day whilst deep in the forest she meets a mysterious man on a horse and a one-eyed man, who are they? And why are they interested in Vasya?
As Vasya grows older Pyotr and the rest of her family begin to be concerned about her and the attention her wild nature brings from the villagers. Pyotr decides to head to Moscow to find himself a wife and a new mother for Vasya. Whist in Moscow a mysterious stranger gives Pyotr a gift for Vasya, a necklace, and tells Pyotr to make sure she always wears it and to never tell anyone about it. Pyotr puts off giving it to her and gets Dunya to keep hold of it for him instead.
Anna is from a very powerful family in Moscow but has delayed making a match for her due to her madness. Anna is very devout and wishes to go to a nunnery as that is the only place she feels respite from the things she sees.
“A demon sat staring in the corner, and she was the only one who saw. Anna Ivanova clutched at the cross between her breasts. Eyes shut, she whispered, ‘Go away, please go away.’
Anna and Vasya struggle to get along from the beginning, Anna believes all the creatures are evil whereas Vasya believes that some of the creatures are there to protect them. As the years go by Anna begins to plot to get Vasya married off.
The arrival of a priest from Moscow only compounds Vasya’s problems with the villagers.
“Vasya was frightened.
Not of the priest, and not of the devils. She saw them every day. Some were wicked, and some were kind, and some were mischievous. All were as human as the folk they guarded. No, Vasya was frightened of her own people.”
As things with the villagers worsen the creatures begin to deteriorate, Vasya fights to be able to stay with her family to protect them from the ancient evil that is awakening in the forest.
I loved this book and cannot recommend it enough, it was fantastic. The perfect winter read, I cannot wait to get a copy for my bookshelf.
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