I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition. And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).
Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside. A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife. Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity. The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.
Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage. In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute. She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself. Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery. Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community. Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community. Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style. This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.
Goodreads rating: 4*
Michael Cunningham is best-known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of The Hours, which was later filmed (winning Nicole Kidman an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf, and attracting a raft of other nominations for the cast and crew). A Wild Swan (Fourth Estate, who provided a review copy) signals a departure: it is a collection of short fiction inspired by classic fairy stories.
Each story in A Wild Swan takes a sideways look at a classic children’s story. Whether it is a shift of perspective (for example, looking at Hansel and Gretel from the witch’s point of view, as she reflects on a life of rejected spinsterhood, or a touching presentation of Rumpelstiltskin as a man desperate for a child), or wondering what follows on from the happily ever after that ends most stories (the married life of The Brave Tin Soldier and the music-box ballerina he fell in love with) these are thought-provoking little vignettes that show the complexity that lies beneath the surface narrative.
Cunningham forces us to question what those stories are telling and teaching us. His Jack is a stupid and entitled boy, whose mother is largely blind to, or indulgent of, his faults. Who else would think swapping a cow for magic beans was a good deal, or climb a beanstalk with such a sense of entitlement to rob two giants who are living a peaceful life without troubling anyone? The prince left with a swan’s arm in the title story for the collection lives a life of regret and unfulfilled potential, hampered by his wing.
These are not Disney tellings of fairy stories. Cunningham takes us closer to the original, archetypal roots of these stories with his work. The Beast is the bad boy that Beauty secretly craves as she considers her limited marriage prospects while she lives with her family. The couple that wish on a monkey’s paw face the dark consequences of losing their son to an industrial accident, and then having their wish to have him back with them fulfilled.
Dark, funny and wry, A Wild Swan is a fascinating and thought-provoking take on the stories that have shaped our childhoods.
Goodreads rating: 4*