Opening line: ‘Ebba Rose was the name of our last-born child. Except it was a lie.’
Rose is the youngest of seven, each born in the direction and named for each point of the compass rose. Rose’s parents were mapmakers until hard times turned them into farmers. Rose is supposed to be an East-born child, but the qualities of East children never seem to fit her. Prone to wander, taken to adventuring, Rose is always not where she is supposed to be. A series of crop failures and hardships force the family into poverty. Then the unimaginable happens: a great white bear knocks at their door with the promise that all their prosperity and more would return if they but give him their youngest child. They refuse, but Rose goes anyway.
‘Are you afraid?’ the bear asked her.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I am not afraid.’
And so Rose embarked on a most remarkable journey. Enchantment, story-telling, traveling across Europe and far North, into the land of Niflheim where no lives but the trolls in a palace of snow and ice.
East by Edith Pattou is a retelling of the Norwegian folktale, ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ set in early modern Norway. This novel came highly recommended from my friend Hanna, and Sarah read it years ago under its UK title, The North Child when we were at Oxford. ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ is one of the Cupid & Psyche-type folktales, twinned with ‘Beauty and the Beast’. This type of folktale is also among my favourites, so I was in love pretty much as soon as the White Bear came onto the scene.
The novel is told from the points of view of Rose, her brother Neddy, her father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. I’m undecided how much I like the set up of very many short chapters from different viewpoints, but you do get more of the story that way, and to that end I enjoyed it. Giving the Troll Queen a voice made her less an archetypal villain. I wish there had been more development of the trolls, but what we do see is refreshing in its telling: N. K. Jemisin wrote about why she doesn’t write about orcs, and Pattou avoids some of the danger of animalizing the Other by making the trolls be incredibly beautiful and with a complex society. I was disappointed, though, that the one troll who befriends Rose is presented as being ‘simple’, almost stupid. I did find myself sympathising with the Troll Queen, which I suppose could counter this, but she was still clearly the baddie and I knew I wasn’t supposed to sympathise with her.
Despite these two complaints, this story was beautifully told. I would recommend it to anyone who loves folk tales and fairy tale retellings, or even just a good story set in the frozen north.