Friday, 14 September 2018

Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

2018  464 pages  Orbit Books

Raised in a small village surrounded by woodland, sisters Liba and Laya have lived a sheltered life -although there are whispers of troubling times ahead for Jews in surrounding communities. When their grandfather takes ill, their parents must leave the sisters behind while they travel to his sickbed, but life for Liba and Laya is about to drastically change. Before their parents leave, Liba discovers that the fairy tales she heard as a child are in fact true as she learns that their Tati can turn in to a bear and their Mami in to a swan. Liba must carry this secret in order to help protect her sister, but the arrival of a mysterious group of men in the village carries more danger as Laya is dragged under their spell. Both sisters must stick together if they are to survive what is happening around them as they soon realise that not all dangers lie in the woods…

I’m finding it hard to pinpoint what kind of book The Sisters of the Winter Wood is. It’s a blend of Jewish folklore, fairy tales, a splash of poetry, magical realism, all wrapped up in a series of historically inspired events. It’s jam packed with so many different ideas inspired by literature and history alike that I’m impressed by how Rena Rossner managed to pull it off, but she did.  If I was to use one word to describe this book, it would be rich – there’s so much within its pages it feels as though they’re fit to burst. It’s detailed, magical, and atmospheric.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t completely sure at first. Magical realism is always something that takes me a minute to get my head around because you’re in a story that feels real and was inspired by real events, then suddenly you’ve got characters who can shapeshift. But I soon got used to the appearance of swans and bears and found I was actually enjoying the story. The characters and the sheltered community they live in felt well-constructed and the elements of magic and folklore were woven thoughtfully in to the narrative. The sisters learn that they too have inherited the ability to shape-shift but in the absence of their parents both Liba and Laya have to learn how to control their capabilities on their own, something which - as you can imagine - proves to be a bit of challenge.

Rossner’s narrative style was an interesting choice – both Liba and Laya have their own short chapters, but where Liba’s is written in prose, Laya’s is stylised in verse. I think this may have been an artistic decision to show the differences between the sisters. Liba is the older, more pious of the two where Laya is the young dreamer, the more romantic. The narrative also features both Yiddish and Hebrew phrases and I was thankful to find a glossary in the back pages so I could understand their meaning, but their presence in the text does help echo the Jewish sensibilities running throughout.

The fairy tale elements and the violent history which courses through this book’s pages does mean there dark moments. There’s talk of poison, blood sucking, and murder surrounding the village and Laya becomes enchanted by the group of boys believed to be responsible. Laya’s chapters in particular are centred around forbidden fruit and an unquenchable desire which gave me serious ‘Goblin Market’ vibes. There is romance to counterbalance the dark parts and it’s the powerful and occasionally overbearing kind that you find in some YA novels. Seeing as this is an adult story the romance did feel a bit heavy for me at times, but it worked for the sisters’ characters arcs well.  

This book may be full to the brim with ideas and themes but the heart of the story centres around the bond of two sisters who would do anything for one another. Their relationship really shines through and it was a delight to be drawn in to such a magical atmosphere. It’s out in the UK on 25th September so keep your eyes peeled for then if you want to get your hands on a copy!

Overall rating: 4 stars

If you'd like to check out more of my reviews you can find them here.

My arc copy of The Sisters of the Winter Wood was sent me by The Bookbag and my review originally appeared on their website.

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