The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (book review)

‘The Bear And The Nightingale’ is a standalone novel set in Russia in the 1800s. Vasilisa is the youngest daughter of five children, living in a small village on rich lands owned by her father, Lord Pyotr. Her mother, Marina, daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow came from a line of women known to possess magic that could tame animals and dream of the future. After none of her four children show any of these gifts, she purposefully has another child, knowing that she would not survive the birth.

Vasilisa is raised by the children’s nursemaid, Dunya, with her siblings, Kolya, Sasha, Olga and Alyosha. Though Russia has, for hundreds of years, been a Christian country, the old ways and customs are still adhered in the countryside with both good and evil creatures roaming freely. Vasilisa grows to be quite unlike any of Pyotr’s other children. In a land and time when women are expected to take on household duties and act in a certain way becoming of females, Vasilisa does the exact opposite. While she is a good and kind child, her father, too constrained by his own experience of women, struggles with disciplining her or letting her be herself.

When the precocious young Vasilisa wanders into the neighbouring forest and almost gets caught by a evil creature in the woods, who recognises the magic in her, she disappears, lost for hours and when is found none believe her story. For they cannot see what she sees. Pyotr decides the only thing that the only thing he can do is to remarry and give Vasilisa a guiding mother figure.

Pyotr returns from Moscow with his new wife, Anna, daughter of the present Grand Prince of Russia Ivan. Anna, too, can see the old creatures of Russia such as the Bannik, which lives and tends to the bathhouses and other spirits. Anna raised as a staunch Christian and living in the capital where the old ways of honouring the spirits are not followed see her gift of sight as a curse and all the spirits as demons. When she and Pyotr are compelled to marry, she leaves for the countryside where her fears are increased by the numerous spirits in the area. Anna’s fear and overly devout Christian ways make her a difficult woman to deal with and the whole family struggles to deal with her, especially Vasilisa.

As Vasilisa grows, her siblings all start to leave the household and she once again reverts to wandering and looking after the spirits and people in their lands. This becomes increasingly difficult once Father Constantin, a priest from the city, is sent to their village and preaches the evil of the spirits and stops the old traditions. The old customs, such as leaving bread out for the Domovoi, a hearth spirit that protects the household. As the spirits grow weaker, the evil Vasilisa met in the woods grows stronger and threatens the land. Vasilisa has only the help of the weakening spirits and the mysterious and dangerous Winter King to protect her home and her people.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Bear And The Nightingale’. It did have certain fairytale elements with the spirits and Dunya’s folk stories but the human element of the book was at the forefront. The way the characters interact and react to each other is so true to real life. The book shows how people’s upbringings and where they live can affect them so drastically, which we see when we compare Vasilisa and Anna. The way people react when they are afraid or manipulated and fooled, as the villagers are by Father Konstantin is both upsetting and totally understandable.

As a 21st century reader, I can really appreciate how strong Vasilisa is. To be independent, capable and true to herself, no matter how she is viewed in the male dominated society of her time. She is a noble and admirable heroine.

There is nothing I can really complain about in this book, the glimpse the book gave me into Russian folklore has me wanting more and there is a helpful glossary in the back which was very useful in a book filled with Russian terms.

Supreethi Selvam

May 2017

(pub: Del Rey/Random House. 419 page hardback. Price: $27.00 (US), $36.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-101-88593-2)

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