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Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

‘Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.’

On the whole, I enjoyed The Sisters of the Winter Wood, though there are a few lulls in the narrative (primarily in the first half of the novel). However, I did read from about a third of the way in to the book’s conclusion in one go, unwilling to put it down.

The two narratives are presented in different formats, one being prose and the other poetry, and I spent some time wondering if there was a particular reason for the poetry beyond Laya’s particular quirks, but once the ties between the story and Goblin Market became apparent, it was much clearer. This said, I could be making assumptions that Laya’s narrative takes the form of poetry to mimic Rossetti’s Goblin Market because she is the sister who takes on the heavier elements of the tale. There are several lines similar to those from Goblin Market, which, having studied and taught Rossetti’s work, I found increasingly distracting, yet this is unlikely to be an issue for all readers. It is certainly effective in conveying the same themes and ideas from the original. The language features and structural devices in Laya’s point of view work well to convey her naivety and youth, contrasted with the unfortunate reality that she is the one drawn down into much more mature situations.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood reads quite like a tale within a tale within a tale, and though I enjoyed elements from each of them, I was left wondering which of them it truly wanted to be. In parts, it is a fantasy novel, while in others it reads like historical fiction, with the retelling of Rossetti’s work woven through the middle. There were sections of descriptive prose that I loved, particularly concerning the swans and Liba’s interaction with Dovid’s family, and though I started the novel finding the switch between prose and poetry little jarring, I did begin to look forward to Laya’s narrative. The writing is certainly lovely and I enjoyed the interspersing of different languages within dialogue and description.

Though I found it a bit difficult to believe the actions of Liba and Laya’s parents (in leaving them alone) and Liba’s ‘handling’ of the situation with Laya (in that she repeatedly either lets her go off alone or gets distracted from addressing it), at its heart the story presents some positive messages about family, love and forgiveness. A unique read and one I would recommend.

Publisher: Orbit Books

Pub date: 25th September 2018

I received an ARC of The Sisters of the Winter Wood from Netgalley and the publisher.