Illustration: Kathrin Honesta
‘We don’t have to be the same to fit together.’ (p 376)
After what has seemed like an interminable wait, I have finally managed to buy a copy of the new Sophie Anderson. (I won’t say from where, as I think they sold it to me a bit before the official release date, and I’m certainly not going to dob them in, as I was so desperate to read it.). Inevitably I dropped everything else and raced through it in a couple of days.
The Girl Who . . .
Probably the first and most important thing to say about this book is that it is categorically not the next in the Stig Larson Dragon Tattoo series. (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, etc., etc.) Anyone expecting the further exploits of Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed.
However, those who know better will be hoping for a captivating follow-up to this author’s justifiably lauded children’s debut, The House With Chicken Legs (see my review from July ‘18). And they will most certainly not be disappointed. Not one jot.
That first book was a highly original tour-de-force that managed simultaneously to be excitingly readable, deeply moving and richly though-provoking. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is not exactly a sequel as such, but it is set in the same Russian folklore-inspired world, and, indeed, another house with chicken legs does put in a notable appearance, together with its ‘Yaga’ inhabitants. Whilst it is in no way essential, it is perhaps advantageous for young readers to have experienced the earlier title first, so that they understand the background of what happens inside this animated dwelling.
However, this new book not only turns out to be a worthy successor to its illustrious predecessor, but in many ways exceeds its remarkable achievements.
Grown from the rootstock of folklore
I have always loved and admired children’s books that have their roots in both particular place and the folklore of that place - what I think of as the Alan Garner tradition. Not only is The Girl Who Speaks Bear one such book, but it has the added advantage that the particular tradition of old Russian tales on which it draws will be novel ground to many young readers in the West. It makes for an intriguingly fresh quality of ‘fairy tale’ experience whilst still evoking, albeit unconsciously, those deep archetypes and universal emotions that resonate with the humanity of us all.
Form and content dancing together
But, for me, it is the fact that this book is a veritable masterpiece of narrative form, that most completely sets it apart. Many of the finest examples of literature (children’s or otherwise) are those where form and content work in perfect harmony to reflect and complement each other. Again, this book is one such. And, because of this, I am confident, it is destined to become a classic of the children’s fantasy canon.
Superficially, the book alternates between a principal narrative, in the present tense, and past tense retellings of what are nominal folk tales, each with its ‘Once upon a time’ opening. Yet it is really not as simple as this, for, from an opening that seems to find its setting in a credibly ‘real’ picture of village life in the far north of Russia, the main narrative itself soon takes on elements of the recounted fairy tales, so that these two elements of the structure move closer and closer together. The folk tales become more like flashbacks in the personal history of protagonist, Yanka, or, to put it another way, her story becomes a living out of the consequences of the the folk tales. It is all most cleverly handled by a wonderful writer already hitting superb form.
So many delights
All this is not to mention beautifully crafted language, evoking vividly the landscapes of village, forest and legend. These, too, are peopled with rich and engaging characters, human and animal. And, through all, distinctive Yanka, a protagonist far from the clichés of storybook ‘heroine’, is engaging, admirable and lovely in the very best sense. She is a character fascinatingly torn between the pulls of society and nature, civilisation and wildness, life and story, and many children, girls and boys, will be honoured to know her and call her their friend. She seeks to belong, despite being different, and her dilemma is shared by many, so her story’s ultimate celebration of home and family (whoever they may be) will comfort and encourage.
The book is quite a long one, but the time taken to read it will repay children a hundredfold. Its cumulatively exciting incident is mixed with gradual revelations about the book’s central mysteries, and its extended climax is thrillingly compulsive. Yanka’s tale will enrich their reading, and their lives, immeasurably. Many will learn to speak bear too, discovering the language of the bear from the forest, the bear from story, and the bear that will always be somewhere within themselves. If a story can have a soul, then this one does.
‘(I wonder) what other stories from my past lie in the forest. My heart races and my toes twitch. But . . . more important than the stories of my past are the stories of my future. And those - with a little help from my family and friends - I can write for myself.’
Wonderful writers like Sophie Anderson help a little too.
. . . and ravishing visually as well
I cannot finish with out adding a word in praise of Kathrin Honesta’s enriching illustrations, which themselves manage beautifully to hover in the hinterland between realism and fairytale, the very place of magical adventure that is the very heart of this life-enriching tale.
US readers can rejoice in the fact that The Girl Who Speaks Bear is coming your way next March. (And book collecting fanatics, like me, will be able to buy an additional hardback edition.)