My thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown and Co for a review copy of the book.
This is a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market but also much more, it weaves in folklore, history, myth and magic. This is the story of two sisters Liba, nearly eighteen, and fifteen-year-old Laya who’ve been living with their Tati and Mami in the woods on the outskirts of Dubossary, on the border between Moldova and Ukraine. Their family has never been accepted really in town for their mother is a convert, and their father has had to leave home and his town (Kupel) because he married an ‘outsider’. When word comes that Tati’s father is ill and on his deathbed, Tati and Mami must go to see him but the girls must stay in their house, for they don’t have travel documents and the times are not safe. Before their parents leave, Liba and Laya discover the truth about their parents and themselves, that Tati (and Liba) can ‘shift’ into bears and Laya like Mami can change into a swan. The sisters have only each other to rely on when the mysterious Hovlin brothers come into the village, with their fruit stall temping buyers including Laya, but also spewing venom again Jews. Other things are happening as well which put their lives and those of all the Jews in that part of the world at risk. The girls must also deal with the truths about themselves and how this will affect their dreams, ambitions, love, and even their relationship with each other.
I really enjoyed this book a lot and there were many many aspects I loved about it, though a few things perhaps prevented it from being a five-star read for me. I enjoyed that the story in alternate chapters is told from each sister’s perspective—Liba’s in prose and Laya’s in verse—and thought the author really succeeded in Liba’s chapters coming through as more grounded, sensible, ‘sane’ even reflecting her personality, while Laya’s are lighter, dreamier, some feel almost entirely as though one were in a dream, and the parts describing her falling into the Goblins’ trap are so well done, one can literally see her getting trapped without even realising what’s happening (In some ways Liba and Laya to me were comparable to Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility—and so Laya did end up annoying me too!). I also enjoyed the strong cultural and folklore elements in the story very much. Liba is strongly attached to her religion, culture, and customs and those elements are woven through the story very well. I loved the use of phrases in Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Yiddish though I only realised there was a glossary when I got to the end (since I wasn’t reading a physical copy). Their cultural background and folklore elements of the sisters’ bear and swan heritage also impacts on their characters, their personalities, things that may attract or repel them.
There was a point in the story where I wasn’t too sure what was happening, where everything was headed—but then I stopped for a bit and looked up Goblin Market online—a poem I wasn’t familiar with—and once I had an idea of that story, the book began to make much more sense. I could then see the different plotlines more clearly, and see better how they were flowing along and interacting with each other.
Then there were also the historical elements of the plot, the pogroms of the early 1900s which led many of the Jewish community in the region to lose their lives, their homes, and all they had. This was a period of history that I didn’t know much about, and I only realised after reading the author’s note at the end that she had used actual events as the base for that part of the plot, and experiences her own family had gone through. And the book’s message in terms of culture, community, and the need to understand and accept difference comes most strongly from this aspect of the plot.
This was also a pretty fast paced book, which kept me reading thoughout, as I wanted to see how everything would resolve (or not) and how things would pan out for the different characters.
I thought the author did a great job of weaving together the different plotlines such that nothing felt like it wasn’t really needed, even the love stories of the sisters (though it felt like at one point in the story, this was the only element focused on) had a purpose. However, reading the book, it still felt as though too much was going on—the real, the fantastic—there is the goblin market plot; the sisters struggling with their identities, their relationships with each other, with their parents, their ‘boyfriends’; the folklore–fairy tale elements; the historical parts of the plot—just an awful lot for two young girls to deal with. It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep track of what was going on—I could; I also liked that all of these plotlines had a resolution, only that it felt like too much.
This was overall a really good read for me and I enjoyed it very much! And I cannot end this review without saying what an absolutely gorgeous cover this one has as well—that was what grabbed my attention in the first place!