(2022) Ava Reid, Del Rey, £14.99, hrdbk, 305pp, ISBN 978-1-529-10076-1
Like the food, whose description peppers its pages, this is a rich and intense flavoured story that may likewise keep you awake at night! Its hero is Marlinchen, one of the three witch-daughters of Oblya’s last wizard, whose house and garden, complete with gods and monsters, stands as a kind of refuge against the creeping modernity represented by the factories and accompanying slums and also, crucially, by the Ballet Theatre. It is an illicit evening trip to the ballet by the three sisters that provides the initial impetus for what happens, as meek and ‘plain-faced’ Marlinchen, tasked with preparing the varenyky (a kind of Russian/Ukrainian dumpling) and kvass (a fermented drink) each morning for her ever-hungry father, is shaken from her subservience by a chance meeting with the male lead. That becomes one of the various secrets that one-by-one crack and eventually shatter the protection that Marlinchen’s father, cursed to be always hungry by Oblya’s ‘last true witch’, has erected around his home and family.
But of course, what he portrays as fatherly protectiveness is really nothing more than abuse and although the other sisters are subjected to their share, it is timid Marlinchen who not only bears the brunt of it but is also pimped out to the creepy Dr Bakay. Ultimately then, like the German folk tale this is loosely based upon, this is a book about cruelty, mental, physical and sexual, and finding a way to escape it. However, those readers expecting a fairy-tale resolution, with the ballet danseur carrying poor little Marlinchen off to some traditionally envisaged future, are likely to be disappointed. First of all, the action, such as it is, remains confined to the wizard’s house and its immediate environs. This further contributes to the oppressive feel of the story, with the characters hemmed in, both physically and magically and forced to retrace and re-enact their steps and interactions day after day. But secondly and most significantly, this is a story about Marlinchen’s transformation into who, or rather what, she is and how she may find a place in a world that is rapidly changing.
It is the idea of transformation, of fenceposts into snakes, of the sisters’ mother into a white bird and of the city itself, from a few houses, where the steppe meets the sea, into a bustling metropolis, that is threaded within the narrative. And those who wield the most power to transform, such as the wizard, are shown to be least capable of dealing with the changes that are taking place all around them. As with many fantasy tales, it is the apparently weak and mild-mannered who prove to be more resilient and emerge, if not entirely victorious, then at least not-as-badly-scathed as the rest! Marlinchen, of course, is the one who takes raw meat and vegetables and turns them into meals each day and is herself, by the end, transformed, in multiple ways. Steeped in the blood of the chopping board, she confronts the central mystery of the book, as the bodies of slaughtered men start to appear, their hearts and livers ripped out and their eyes replaced with plum stones. Here I did think that more could have been made of these murders, which take place ‘off-stage’, as it were. But then that would, in turn, have transformed the book into something more traditional. Instead, the focus remains within the house and the eviscerated bodies are treated like those of the chickens and pigs whose meat is devoured every morning by the wizard. Throughout the book, death and food are tied irrevocably together.
Indeed, this is not a book for the squeamish. Blood and grease drip from almost every page and even the scenes of joy and love, some of which are explicitly erotic, are coloured by pain and trauma. What saves it from being just a brutal gore-fest are the author’s descriptive abilities as she deploys an acutely honed facility with words to pull the reader into this Slavic fantasy and follow what is essentially a Gothic quest, but one that involves a search for a new identity rather than some artefact, magical or otherwise. Just like the food that Marlinchen cooks, this is a book to be savoured, even if it does leave you feeling a little queasy by the end.
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