Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter is not the strangest book I have read but it does number among one of the strangest. Let me show you a series of gifs to illustrate my reactions while reading the book.
But it wasn’t a bad book at all. Just interestingly strange. I would tell you what provoked each reaction but that will mean giving away a lot of the story and that would be a shame.
Anyway, let’s begin again.
Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: September 20th 2016 by Tor Teen
Source: Raincoast Books
If you are not familiar with Vassalisa the Beautiful, it is essentially the Russian version of Cinderella. Two evil stepsisters, stepmother, absent dead, and a prince.
Sarah Porter takes the fairytale, turns it upside down and gives us Vassa in the Night which is atmospheric, rich with folkloric details, and contains an intriguing adolescent protagonist. I’m not saying this book is perfect, mind you, but it is a very strong debut from a novelist from whom we will no doubt see amazing things in the future.
I love how this story opens.
“People live here on purpose; that’s what I have heard. They even cross the country deliberately and move in to the neighbourhoods near the river, and suddenly their sohes are cuter than they are, and very possibly smarter and more articulate as well, and their lives are covered in sequins and they tell themselves they have arrived….
The writing flows smoothly and honestly reading this book was a pleasure. Vassa’s mother is dead and her father is…well, let’s say absent. I will let you discover what happened to him yourself. She lives in the murky side of Brooklyn where convenience stores called BYs have taken over…everything. The night is gradually growing longer and longer until entire days can sink into one night without making much of a dent into it. Vassa has two sisters, one of them is a half-sister and the other one is a step-sister. And Vassa has a wooden doll who talks, sleeps, eats, and steals. And since Vassa has promised to tell no one about her doll, Erg, everyone thinks she is the one stealing.
Also Vassa is beautiful but this doesn’t have much bearing on the story. Not much. Now the convenience store, BYs for short, beheads anyone caught shoplifting. One night, all bulbs fail and Vassa’s half-sister demands she go get new ones. Vassa, having lost her mind and temper, agrees even though she knows that her light-fingered doll may make surviving the night an extreme impossibility.
So Vassa goes to BYs, (it does have chicken feet), and sees a helmeted motorbike rider driving in circles around the store. She presumes him to be some kind of nightwatchman–if only she knew. She goes into the store and discovers that even if you don’t steal, the witch has ways of making store items appear in your pocket. Vassa gets caught but using her wit, she negotiates a contract of three nights working at the store instead of immediate death. The witchy Baba Yaga agrees and Vassa’s servitude begins.
Erg, Vassa’s doll, has a hidden agenda and while she is completely devoted to Vassa, she wants to accomplish something at the store that Vassa only finds out about later.
This book is a strange and beautiful fairytale for the contemporary set. Now, admittedly, this is not my favourite iteration of Baba Yaga (she’s just plain evil in this one) but the way Porter took a relatively simple story and made it complex and layered won me over. Her beautiful writing was just icing on the cake.
The book is ultimately about sisters. Chelsea and Vassa’s relationship, Vassa and Erg’s relationship, and perhaps to an extent, the relationship between Vassa and her swans-who-were-once-people. There is romance but it is a very tiny subplot and the majority of the story is focused on immediate issues like trying not to die even when evil creatures are doing their best to ensure you do so. The side characters, of whom there are many, are wonderful. I especially loved Picnic and Pangolin who are lawyers for the other-than-human creatures.
I suppose I could also call this a coming of age story, a bildungsroman of the 21st century, with profit-minded witches at the forefront and determined anti-heroines seeking some kind of meaning. I enjoyed Vassa in the Night and I reckon that if you like fairytales, you will too.