Big thanks to Kip Polmanteer in Youth Services for sharing her thoughts on this book!
The inexplicable, icy unease permeating Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver echoes perfectly against the backdrop of winter in the mountains. A supreme example of a fractured folk tale, Novik’s latest standalone has all the mystery and magic of a fairy tale, and the intrigue and circumstance demanded by an adult audience.
Marginally based on the story of Rumpelstiltskin, Spinning Silver presents a story told in threes: Three young women from different societal echelons, fighting against three unwanted situations. Novik braids them expertly, slowly bringing them together to form a rich plot from individual strands. Miryem, the daughter of a terribly kind moneylender, decides to take up the mantle to save her starving family from the magically deepening ravages of winter; Wanda works for Miryem’s family as payment for her drunken and heavily abusive father’s debt; Irina is the homely daughter of a duke, soon forced into marriage with a tsar immersed in dark magic.
The sheer mechanics of Spinning Silver are dazzling. The tale is episodic and told from multiple first-person perspectives; Novik never announces the shifting of narrators, allowing them each to take over at page breaks or new chapters. While some of the dialogue can be confusing, each character’s voice is so unique that one never wonders who is speaking. Novik’s worldbuilding spins a story that might otherwise seem overwrought. While long descriptions slow the storytelling in some places, the pace also adds a beautiful tension, much like trudging through deep snow to get home to a warm fire. The snowy foreboding of the tale does not melt as the pages turn, but expands as explanations reveal themselves.
While this book is exclusively Eastern European in its style and characterization, it does not lack attention to the Other. The pervasiveness of Judaism and Jewish culture is exquisite and detailed without being didactic. The exploration of anti-Semitism is profound, and the Otherness that social hierarchy finds to be so valuable is tangible and relatable throughout. Each character is forced to reflect on feelings of being an outsider, albeit for different reasons. Realistic inner workings of society, such as poverty, segregation, and war create drifts that catch every character at some point.
Spinning Silver also portrays the unique strength of women. Familial love, both blood and found, is foremost in this story, while more intimate relationships are secondary. While this work certainly lacks the lust and passion with which Novik’s Uprooted burned, Spinning Silver lacks none of its fire. Spinning Silver is a more meaningful work in many ways, teaching the importance of love and of caring for each other in a world that seeks to separate. Miryem’s mother says, “There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies…you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world.”
Novik displays enduring wisdom that melts the ice from the heart of this story. One should delve into this frigid tale headfirst, but not without a warm beverage close at hand.