The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel and, by the time you’ve turned the final page, you’re left with a deep hope that there will be more and that they will be every bit as good.
Texan Arden spent a year in school in France and, before beginning her degree in French and Russian literature at Middlebury College, Vermont, a year living and studying in Moscow. Since then, she’s spent further time working in France.
And all that experience is important because her book is essentially a Russian fairytale.
Set in a past where Russians still pay homage to the Khan; where Moscow is built of wood and where the new religion of Christianity still overlaps with the old – at least in the far reaches of the countryside – Arden’s tale begins with a family gathering around a vast oven for the telling of a story on a bitter winter’s night.
It is a story of winter; a story of the season anthropomorphised; a story of greed and fear and courage and love.
When the family sits back at its end, we begin to learn about them.
There is Marina – a strange woman and daughter of an equally strange and unknown bride of an Ivan in Moscow, who was married to minor noble Pyotr at her father’s behest.
They have had healthy children during a happy marriage, but then she becomes pregnant once more and, even though she’s weakened by a particularly hard winter, insists she that will give birth and that the child will be a daughter who will, in effect, continue her own philosophy.
Dying in childbirth, Pyotr is left to care for the new-born Yasya – helped by the rest of the family and Dunya, the elderly nursemaid.
But some years later, when he travels to Moscow with his sons to look for a new wife, an incident occurs that sees him travel home with a special pendant for Marina’s daughter and fear in his heart for the safety of the child.
Traditional fairy tales have little character development.
One of the things that Arden achieves here is to develop character far more than is traditional, yet to simultaneously give us something that never ceases to have the real and discernible sense of a fairy tale.
She gives the characters enough depth to satisfy contemporary readers – and to make us care – while at the same time never taking us too far from the recognisable types. Equally, this delves into philosophical realms that you can choose to pick up on or not (the nature of religion, for instance).
Arden knows her Russian folklore and it’s a knowledge that radiates throughout this book, yet never feels false or forced.
A tale of deep, deep winter, the landscape is conjured sublimely. And perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the novel is actually the language. Somehow, Arden gives her tale a linguistic feeling of age – yet without ever a false note to make you squirm and feel that it is artificial or somehow wrong.
At least one review I’ve seen suggests that this is, in part, magic realism. I disagree. And that’s because it’s important to stress that what this certainly is IS fantasy/fairy tale – and on those terms, it is a work of literature and wonder and needs no such literary terms to ‘justify’ it.
I will say no more than that Arden has written a wonderful, magical book, and that I can only hope that she will not be a one-hit wonder.