Fic­tion

Anya and the Nightingale

  • Review
By – November 24, 2020

Anya Miroslavov­na, the hero­ine of Sofiya Pasternack’s debut nov­el, Anya and the Drag­on, is back — and so is her drag­on. This time, Anya under­takes a quest to bring back her father, the vic­tim of unjust con­scrip­tion into the tsar’s army. Along with Ivan Ivanov — the wise fool — Anya and her shape-shift­ing drag­on ally, and set out on a dan­ger­ous mis­sion enhanced by both mag­ic and his­to­ry. In this cap­ti­vat­ing fan­ta­sy nov­el about a brave girl unde­terred by dan­ger, the issues of friend­ship, cul­tur­al fusion, and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty are as cen­tral to the sto­ry as is the phys­i­cal adventure.

Paster­nack builds her sto­ry around the ear­ly Russ­ian king­dom of Kievan Rus’, where Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties exist­ed from the tenth cen­tu­ry on. Anya’s small town of Zmeyre­ka has only a grand total of four Jews in it — three, with Papa gone…,” but she and her fam­i­ly have man­aged to cre­ate a rich if cir­cum­scribed Jew­ish life, while main­tain­ing close ties to the village’s Chris­t­ian res­i­dents. As the nov­el opens, Anya is build­ing a some­what prim­i­tive sukkah, but one which will con­form to the min­i­mal require­ments of Jew­ish law. This com­mit­ment to express­ing her Judaism is both a con­stant in the plot and a metaphor for the chal­lenges of liv­ing as a minor­i­ty under the tsar’s rule. For­tu­nate­ly, Anya has a lov­ing moth­er, indomitable grand­par­ents, and non-Jew­ish com­pan­ions who respect her family’s dif­fer­ence and enjoy her mother’s exper­tise in prepar­ing effec­tive potions for treat­ing every­thing from teething to anxiety.

The mag­ic in Anya and the Nightin­gale is root­ed in Jew­ish and Russ­ian folk­lore. Read­ers will learn how an ibbur takes pos­ses­sion of a person’s spir­it in a ben­e­fi­cial way, and how unpre­dictably the actions of a home’s domovoi, or house spir­it, may alter events. Paster­nack inte­grates her char­ac­ters’ super­pow­ers seam­less­ly into their per­son­al­i­ties and the cul­ture of their his­tor­i­cal era. Anya’s per­cep­tive under­stand­ing of oth­ers’ motives allows her to ana­lyze peo­ple with great empa­thy. Even the tsar’s daugh­ter is rel­a­tive­ly pow­er­less, a vic­tim of patri­ar­chal prej­u­dice, and the nightin­gale of the book’s title turns out to be a com­plex char­ac­ter, able to show both feroc­i­ty and compassion.

One of the most mem­o­rable parts of the nov­el is Anya’s encounter, for the first time, with a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Kiev. She is invit­ed by Misha — a young Jew­ish man who lives in two worlds as the son of a rab­bi and an as archer at the tsar’s court — to a Shab­bat din­ner at his home where she par­tic­i­pates in a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence unlike any she has known. Pasternack’s descrip­tion of Anya’s thoughts and emo­tions is a high point of the nar­ra­tive. The author defa­mil­iar­izes the rit­u­al so that read­ers encounter it through Anya’s per­cep­tions. The can­dle light­ing is a point of con­tact which Anya rec­og­nizes from her own home but her lim­it­ed knowl­edge of oth­er bless­ings and prayers leaves her feel­ing con­fused and insecure.

The bless­ing of the wine is “…so much longer than the Kid­dush she said at home. The warmth that the can­dles had kin­dled in her was fad­ing.” She observes the rit­u­al hand wash­ing with detach­ment, not­ing the details as if try­ing to com­mit them to mem­o­ry. This scene cap­tures the pecu­liar sta­tus of a Jew with­out a com­mu­ni­ty in the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages, but it also evokes the response of Jews through the ages con­fronting their alien­ation from tra­di­tion. Even culi­nary dif­fer­ences from dif­fer­ent sub­cul­tures can make one feel estranged, such as when Anya sees an import from Byzantium.

Pasternack’s accom­plish­ment is con­sid­er­able. She has cre­at­ed a fic­tion­al world steeped in both his­to­ry and fan­ta­sy, one which also con­fronts core issues of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and female strength in the face of soci­etal obsta­cles. Read­ers will find sig­nif­i­cant enchant­ment in Anya’s lat­est tale.

Anya and the Nightin­gale is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an extreme­ly help­ful glos­sary of both Russ­ian and Hebrew terms.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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