Rena Rossner – The Sisters of the Winter Wood

In a remote village surrounded by forests on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, sisters Liba and Laya have been raised on the honeyed scent of their Mami’s babka, and the low rumble of their Tati’s prayers. But when a troupe of mysterious men arrives, Laya falls under their spell — despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. As dark forces close in on their village, Liba and Laya discover a family secret about a magical heritage they never knew existed. The sisters realise the old fairy tales are true … and could save them all.

Rena Rossner’s debut novel The Sisters of the Winter Wood arrived as a surprise on my doorstep and — based on the description and the absolutely gorgeous cover — I immediately looked forward to reading the book. I’d expected it to be a fairy tale retelling given the description, but instead it was a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market.  This was pleasant surprise, since while I always struggled with poetry at university, I loved Rossetti’s poem and the Pre-Raphaelites are some of my favourite artists. 

Perhaps fittingly, given its inspirations, the story is told in alternating chapters in prose and verse. That took me aback initially, since I don’t do well with verse novels. Yet despite that, I was drawn in by the voices of the sisters and the magic of the story. The chapters don’t just alternate in writing style, they also alternate in viewpoint—the prose chapters are told by Liba and the verse chapters by Laya. Yet it is not just the writing style that distinguishes the sisters’ voices from each other, the difference in their characters comes across clearly in the writing as well. I understand the difference in narrative style was meant to convey the difference in the sisters’ natures, but I wonder whether they wouldn’t have worked equally well in just straight prose. Then again that might just be my dislike for novels in verse speaking.

Liba, the eldest, is very grounded, loves the forest, is very much her father’s daughter and is strongly connected to her faith. And, like her father, she can shape-shift into a bear. While she wants to be a dutiful daughter she also strains against the limitations placed upon her—she wants to make her own choices and be her own person. She is described as plump and dark, where her sister is the opposite, lithe and white-golden-haired. Laya is also lighter in spirit and longing for a different kind of freedom. It is no wonder that Laya longs to fly from their little village, as she takes after their mother and can shift into a swan. Rossner reflects their different natures in the way they speak and in their pre-occupations in the narrative. Liba was my favourite, both because I connected more easily to her due to her narrative being in prose, but also because I liked the fact that she was very human in her inner thoughts. We see her uglier reactions to her sister’s behaviour and her uncharitable thoughts towards other people and her struggle to conquer them, or if not able to conquer them to at least acknowledge them as unkind and to set them aside. 

Two important elements to the world-building are the historical and religious setting. The story is set during the pogroms that raged through Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire during the  first decade of the twentieth century. The fear and distrust this caused within Jewish communities is palpable and not just limited to tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish people, but also between orthodox vs non-orthodox Jewish people. While the family already faces the tension created by just living in a small, rural community, there is the added complication of their family following the Chassidic traditions. If just the looming threat of the pogroms aren’t enough to isolate their community within the village, their mother being a Christian convert to the faith causes them to be looked on askance both within the village, and within their religious community. It is the isolation this puts the girls in, that makes them vulnerable when the Hovlin brothers arrive; though they are not completely without friends.

Her religious background adds complications to Liba’s feelings for Dovid, whose family isn’t orthodox in their faith. I loved the courtship between Liba and Dovid and Dovid’s earnest desire to win Liba’s heart and hand. Also his mum, Mrs. Meisels is amazing. It was easy to understand why Liba would long to not just be with Dovid, but to be part of his family’s warm embrace. I found Liba’s inner conflict about the feelings and desires Dovid awakens in her and the literal changes her feelings for him engender very compelling.

There is a lot to chew on in The Sisters of the Winter Wood, but above all it is a beautiful story about the bond between sisters, a bond which might chafe at times, but is hard to break. Despite the added hurdle of the narrative verse, I genuinely enjoyed this novel and I this that readers who enjoy fairytale retellings will certainly enjoy this as well, especially as it is a fairly unique setting. 

This book was provided for review by the publisher.