My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I came across The Bear and the Nightingale while browsing through the winners of Goodreads Readers Choice Polls last year. As much as I rely on Goodreads, I am a cynic when it comes to judging a book purely on its Goodreads numbers. It is also an unusual choice because I don’t pick up books from the genres of Magical Realism and Fantasy that readily. However, I read 2 more books after I finished this one: the sequel to this book, The Girl in the Tower and The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale. Maybe it is the craziness in the world around me in the past couple of months, or maybe, something inside me has tweaked but I find myself enjoying the feel of Magic and Fables with a hint of dark thrown in. It is those darker, sombre tones of the book that distinguish it from Children’s Stories, making them appealing to mature readers.
Enough about me, let us talk about the book. The Bear and the Nightingale draws inspiration from several Russian folklores to put together a beautiful tale of young Vasilisa ‘Vasya’ Petrovna, daughter of Pytor Vladimirovich, a boyar in medieval Russia. Set in a small village on the edge of the northern woods of Russia, the harsh setting of cold and desolation itself supplies half of the magical touch to the tale. After her mother dies does not survive her birth, she grows up listening to the tales her nurse Dunya narrates to all the children of the household gathered around the kitchen fire each night. Her favourite story is that of the blue-eyed winter demon, named Frost and her choice in stories is a portent of the dark turn of events in future. What makes me love Vasya more is the fact that she isn’t your typical fairy princess/ an ethereal beauty/ damsel in distress. Her sister used to call her a frog and thought nothing of it. She is described to skinny as a reed-stem with large, clumsy hands and feet. In the land she lives, people honour various usually invisible spirits that inhibit each house, stable and forest, leaving them small offerings from time to time in exchange for service and protection.
After the arrival of her city-bred stepmother, Anna, who does not believe in the spirits, and “sees” and battles ghosts of her own, Vasya’s life takes a worse turn. The arrival of a priest called Konstantin does bode well either. Konstantin channels his efforts in turning the village folk from these pagan practices and towards proper Christian practices. This scares already troubled Anna transforming her fear into zealous piety. The ruin spreads over the land rapidly along, crops fail, animals die en masse, along with the rumour that Vasya is a witch who must be brought into submission by any means. Since Vasya is ready to accept neither of the options, she must find a way to protect her people and stop the calamity in its tracks.
The Bear and the Nightingale broods on the theme of love, loss and the fear of being not in compliance with what everyone’s definition of normal. The details of stark, arid landscape of Russia and the daily lives of people of who live on the edge of the wilderness enrich the reading experience. The dinners of rye bread and the stew cabbage soups, where the household congregates around the kitchen embers, the snow and the wild landscape brings up evocative images which appeal to all five of the reader’s senses. It tugs at the part of you which relates to the scary tales of demons from childhood just as strongly as it feeds an adult’s need for adventure and thrill. And the best, one has a strong, non-conformist female protagonist in Vasya. While it might outwardly appear that the only battles that she wages are against villains of the tale, what she really has to fight is the human weaknesses of fear of the Unknown. The fear of the Unknown is a stronger motivator than we think it to be. It is even more lethal when it is targeted at a congregation, than when the target is only a single individual. The story clearly outlines its potency to spread mass hysteria and panic and is such a wonderful insight into the crowd psychology that for a while, I even forgot that it was a fairy tale.
The book is a great pick for you if you are open to the idea of folklore and magic and midwives’ tales. You don’t have to believe in them to enjoy the book, but you do need the approach the tale with a certain preparedness, the readiness to not approach it like a thriller. It didn’t grow on me from page one because it had been a long time since I read something from the genre. As cliched as it sounds, you need to give magic a chance. It is not a great choice for a pragmatic reader. It is also not a serious read. You must not expect deep, soul-stirring takeaways from it. It is fantasy and has to be treated like one to enjoy it.