Every family has a secret… and every secret tells a story.
I received an advanced reader copy of The Sisters of the Winter Wood in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Rena Rossner and Orbit Books for this opportunity.
The titular sisters and their parents live close to the village of Dubossary and reside in a house that is close to the woods. They are a Jewish family in a tale that is like a melting pot of reality, Jewish mythology and a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The sisters Laya and Liba are very different in personalities. This can even be seen in the way that their chapters are presented. Liba is the older, more serious, religious and over-analytical sister and her point of view chapters are written in a way you would expect from a modern fantasy novel. Detailed and explaining to the best of her knowledge what is happening in the world. Laya, her younger sister is daring, free, floaty and ambitious. Her sections are presented in a poetic stanza-like quality. Her chapters feel like a breeze in the air compared to the deeper and more thought-provoking chapters of her sibling. She occasionally repeats herself in a dreamlike state.
“I’ve had too much wine.
Too much fruit.
And no answers.
But I just want
to kiss him again
Towards the beginning of the novel, their parents inform them of what is up until that point secret mind-blowing family knowledge and then leave them to fend for themselves in the woods. Mami tells Liba to protect her younger sister from the swans.
This is a magical, enchanting, haunting and mysterious debut featuring anti-semitism, enchantments, peculiar love stories, bizarre fruits and unsolvable murders in a small quaint settlement.
The elements of magic and mystery were amazing. Rossner’s imagination is heightened and colourful yet it is written in a way where people who can become cats, bears, swans and even goblins fits the world expertly and never seems forced or silly. I believe the differences between the two point of view perspectives with Liba’s matter of fact views and Laya’s cloudy dreamlike take on reality allow readers to open their imagination. Some of the scenes reminded me of a dark Disney fairy tale.
The beginning starts at a steady pace. It features short sharp chapters ranging from 1 to 14 pages so it’s always addictive and easy to read one more scene. The narrative features Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukranian words and phrases. It does feature a glossary of what these words mean at the back of the book but as a guy who watches foreign films (especially Chinese) without subtitles so I can follow the emotions instead of the meaning I just let it flow and took it in and therefore was familiar with certain phrases at the end. This is an alien, poetic and enchanted world so not knowing the meanings of some of the peculiar words seemed to fit the mise en scene.
The only real negative I have about this narrative is that in certain chapters around the middle it seemed to go from Liba “I love this boy, he kissed me and it was great.” Laya “I kissed this boy, I want to kiss him again.” This seemed to go on for about 4-5 chapters and I’m not really into lovey-dovey romance in my fantasy. I can see why the author had these sections and they do add to the overall progression arcs for both the sisters but I just wish that they had other actions in between. The love seemed a bit too in my face! At this point, I did have to force myself to carry on but I did because I’d heard so many great things about this novel.
This is a complex and unpredictable tale with a spectacular finale and I’m glad I carried on reading it. I read The Sisters of the Winter Wood in 3 days and that is including the fact I struggled with a handful of romance chapters. It analysed a Hansel and Gretal vibe from the beginning and some events here aren’t that far away from that classic tale. Nobody and nothing is safe in the woods and the two girls are always running off into this enchanted forest. Whether to rescue each other or for their own needs. This really was the sort of novel I needed to read right now. It’s excellent, perhaps more suited for younger and female readers however there are dark moments. One scene to do with blood-sucking and poisoning in particular. The trees are alive, the swans are trying to kidnap someone, the bears might be murderers, the new boys in town are charming women before they disappear. There is so much going on and it is excellent. The Sisters of the Winter Wood will be a huge hit, perhaps as popular as The Bear and the Nightingale. I can’t recommend it enough. It doesn’t get a higher rating because of the romance force-fed action in the middle but that’s my personal taste and I still highly recommend it.