Archive for the ‘superstitions’ Tag

A fairy tale’s heroine   1 comment











The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel, which
blends a familiar theme in the guise of a Russian folktale.

While this is more fantasy than classic Russian literature, the author does rely                                              on its characteristics, such as the patriarchal society and descriptions of                                                medieval Russia.

Vasya, whose mother died in childbirth, is a rebellious young girl; which
intensifies as she grows older. Yet, she’s sensitive to the world around her,
particularly aspects others either can’t or won’t acknowledge. This includes
woodland apparitions, water nymphs and household spirits.

Vasya’s father remarries and brings his young, extremely religious wife,
Anna, to his home in a remote village near the forest’s edge. Despite her pious
devotion, she is a malicious stepmother. She forbids the family from honoring
or acknowledging their household spirits. This, and the arrival of a priest who
supports Anna, ensures the family and villagers will endure bad luck.

The novel isn’t initially engaging, but gains momentum as Arden’s writing
becomes more vivid and her characters more fully developed. The harsh winter is
a significant element of the narrative.

The title is derived from the combating attributes of the woodland folklore
creatures and Vasya’s ultimate role with them.

It’s necessary to suspend disbelief and remind oneself that fear and joy are
part of fairy tales. This helps in recognizing the absence of nuance: there is
evil or good; magic or reality; but always a surprise.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Almost Four bookmarks

Del Ray, 2017

333 pages (includes glossary of Russian terms, Reader’s Guide and author


Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

In the Eye of the Beholder   Leave a comment


The first sentence in Eka Kurniawan epic, Beauty is a Wound, is a doozy: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” It sets the perfect-wtf-tone for the entire novel.

Set in Indonesia, the narrative combines elements of the island nation’s history with folk lore, superstition, mystery and love. It’s farfetched in scope and captivating in its depiction of a myriad of characters.

Dewi Ayu is of Dutch heritage and her beauty is renowned throughout the island. Her story includes her childhood, survival during the Japanese occupation and eventual career path as a prostitute. She has three daughters whose beauty is also the stuff of legends and a third daughter, whose appearance is so repulsive that out of consideration for others,  keeps herself hidden. Also, because of Dewi Ayg’s exquisite looks, she a very popular lady of the night.

Ironically, the ugly daughter is named Beauty.

At times it’s difficult keeping track of who’s who, which political regime is in power and who’s a spirit or not. The effort is worth it. Kurniawan jostles back and fourth among characters and time frames as he tells Dewi Ayu’s story.

Many of the subplots are like fairy tales. They are easy to get caught up in before the author reveals the connections each element has to another. Don’t expect a happily-ever-after outcome, but do be prepared for an engaging, if often exaggerated, explanation of how a woman suddenly is among the living again.

Beauty is a Wound
Four Bookmarks
New Directions Paperback, 2015 (translated edition by Annie Tucker)
470 pages