In a mix of historical fiction and fantasy, Rossner's debut weaves a richly detailed story of Jewish identity and sisterhood.
Sisters Laya and Liba are different as night and day. In their family’s cottage, nestled in the Kodari forest surrounding the town of Dubossary, they adhere in different degrees to their family’s Orthodox Judaism. Dark-haired Liba—ungainly and dogged by a persistent hunger for meat—revels in Jewish study with her father, while Laya, who possesses the preternatural ability to communicate with the Kodari forest itself, is a free spirit animated by wanderlust, eager to break with the strictures of their insular community. Though held at arm’s length by the local Jews because their mother is a convert, the sisters live a relatively peaceful life till an unexpected visit from their father’s brother Yankl brings news of their grandfather’s illness in a nearby town. Yankl implores their father to return, and before their parents embark on the journey, Liba witnesses them transform into animals—her father into a bear, her mother into a swan—forcing them to expose a long-hidden truth. Each girl is descended from a lineage able to morph, at will, into an animal counterpart: Liba into a bear like her father, Laya into a swan like her mother. Just as the girls begin to come to grips with this new reality, their parents leave and a sense of foreboding infects Dubossary. Jews are blamed for the deaths of two gentiles whose bodies were found at the edge of an orchard; a mysterious band of brothers peddling fruit occupies the town market; and families disappear. As the sisters grapple with the frightening implications of their identities, they must harness them to shield the town from forces that threaten to tear it apart. Told in alternating sections from the two sisters' perspectives that switch between prose (for Liba) and occasionally melodramatic poetry (for Laya), this is an atmospheric yarn that sets elements of Jewish, Greek, and European folklore against a pogrom-era Eastern European backdrop. Rossner’s story is inspired by her own family's history; each of her great-grandparents fled anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and her story is emotionally charged, full of sharp historical detail and well-deployed Yiddish phrases. Though the narrative is dragged down by stilted dialogue and a clichéd romance for Liba, the sensitive depiction of the sisters' bond and surprising mythological elements will keep readers’ interest piqued.
Ambitious and surprising.