Recently, I had the opportunity to read an early copy of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightgale, released on 12 January in the UK. I chose it, after reading a synopsis, to replace the Uprooted-shaped hole in my reading life after ploughing through that book twice (!!) when it debuted in paperback last summer, and, despite a rough beginning that left me wondering when synopsis would end and plot would start, I was not disappointed.
The Bear and the Nightgale is a re-imagining of a Russian fairytale about a wild maiden, a frost demon, and that most ubiquitous of fairytale characters, a jealous stepmother. But Arden turns what could be a very predictable if still entertaining tale into a nuanced picture of growing up and learning to make difficult decisions – sometimes in opposition family, friends, and even society.
Vasya, the tale’s ‘wild maiden’, is more than just a precocious girl with a destiny. Over the course of the novel, she grows into a clear-eyed, kind-hearted young woman who learns to balance personal desire against responsibility and obligation. Vasya’s constant battle between carving out a place for herself in a rigidly defined world and preserving who she is drives the narrative, and is echoed in the villager’s battle between two opposing ideologies – preserving the old ways and appeasing the spirits of house and forest, or rejecting them entirely in favour of a tyrannical version of Christian faith. The Bear and the Nightingale is full of ambitions, sacrifices, precarious balances – and how Vasya finds her own balance reminded me of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Finding neither option available to her acceptable, she creates her own third door. The ramifications of Vasya’s decision, after the turn of the last page, are left to the reader to decide.
Another example of intriguing characterisation is Father Konstantin, a priest sent from away from the sphere of political and social influence in Moscow to Vasya’s far-flung village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Used to adoration from the masses for his brilliantly painted icons, Konstantin’s ego is ill-served by the village’s small congregation, and his ambitions to be revered slowly sour into a lust for power – and a preoccupation with Vasya that he is afraid to question the motives of. His decline from powerful priest to pawn and madman is delicately drawn.
Not every character is quite so pitch-perfect, however. Arden’s biggest miss here is Anna Petrovna – the evil stepmother. At first meeting, we are meant to feel sympathy for her, to care about her, but she is introduced too abruptly and fleshed out too inadequately to draw such a strong response from a reader. Her journey from pious, persecuted woman to cruel, jealous shrew seems to happen mostly off-stage; even just a few moments demonstrating the effect of the strain her new and uniquely painful circumstances were having would have been enough to generate more investment in the character. Executed properly, she is the perfect foil for Vasya, and with a different build up, her fate could have been a powerful, if pitiful, moment, but ultimately she is more caricature than character.
The book is divided into three parts, covering about a decade-and-a-half, though most of the plot’s action is concentrated in Vasya’s adolescence. The first section, largely set up for the second part which contains the most of the major developments, and the third which contains the climax and resolution, suffers from slow pacing and an overabundance of characters. The first section moves rapidly through time, chronicling important events from the early days of Vasya’s mother’s pregnancy to Vasya’s late childhood in roughly the same amount of space the other sections devote to much smaller spans of time. Section two in particular contains a swift-moving plot and character development demonstrated through action and dialogue, rather than the point-to-point set-up of relevant events and tell-instead-of-show introduction to far too large a cast of players that the first section favours. Some editing and re-structuring might have had a positive effect here – but ultimately, the rough beginning does not outweigh the magical, engaging story that unfolds in later sections. (AN: I recall having similar feelings about the first several chapters of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; if you felt that book began very slowly before picking up with the plot, you might feel that here too – best rest assured, if you ultimately enjoyed The Night Circus, I think you will find The Bear and the Nightingale just as worth your time.)
Over all, though it is not without problems, The Bear and the Nightingale is a superb debut novel. The fantasy elements create a lush context for a very real-world human drama – one many readers who are or once were young girls will probably find familiar. The world Arden creates is thorough and rich, and I was never in doubt about her knowledge or expertise. The author’s notes at the end, giving a brief history of the time period and setting of her novel, a small glossary of unfamiliar words, and a brief overview of her translational choices were all greatly appreciated. (Given my own research biases, I was especially happy to see the notes on translation; Arden speaks concisely but articulately about the deliberate choices she made in rendering Russian terminology for an English-reading audience.) This book has earned a place on my shelves; I know it’s one I’ll read again, while I eagerly await whatever Arden might have coming next (little hint: sometimes her Instagram reveals tantalising tidbits…).
If you read and enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale, here are some other authors and novels you might check out:
Uprooted, Naomi Novik. If you somehow missed that spectacular novel last summer, stop depriving yourself and find it now!
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern – A powerful, against-all-odds romance, a enchantingly kaleidoscopic world full of magic and illusion and danger – if you ever dreamed of running away to join the circus, this book will make you remember why.
Stardust, Neil Gaiman. For a fairytale setting, similar themes of growing up finding a place for yourself, and of course Gaiman’s incomparable storytelling skills.
Deerskin, Robin McKinley. McKinley’s retelling of the French fairytale Donkeyskin is a rich, magical tale of a young girl overcoming psychological trauma and learning to heal herself.
If you’ve read The Bear and the Nightgale, what did you think? New favourite, or not your thing? Any recommendations of your own to add? Let me know in the comments below!