Matrona shook her head, mulling over Olia’s bizarre words. “What’s ‘snow’?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea” – Jaska shrugged – “but she prattles about it from time to time.”
That little exchange is the first sign you get that the small village in Charlie N. Homberg’s latest book might be a little…odd. Things aren’t completely perfect (other than the weather of course); Matrona Vistin’s newborn sister disappeared without a trace when Matrona was six years old, and her relationship with her parents in the twenty years since can best be described as “strained”. But Matrona is mostly content with being a dairymaid on her family’s farm, and she has her upcoming marriage to the handsome (if a little distant) village butcher to look forward to.
Matrona’s life might have stayed predictable and quiet, if only she hadn’t given in to a moment’s curiosity and stumbled across the tradesman Slava Barinov’s collection of nested wooden dolls. Each doll is painted to look like someone Matrona knows. In fact, there’s one for every member of her village, and trying to separate the two halves of the dolls has a nasty effect on whoever the doll is matched to.
Imagine a traditional brightly-painted matryoshka doll; that’s the kind of setting that Charlie Holmburg has created for this short novel. Everything about the village is quaint, and sunny, and charming, from tradesman Slava’s elegant cottage with the shiny dragon-scale shingles, right down to the box of wedding clothes Matrona looks through with her best friend Roksana. Even Matrona’s slightly improper thoughts about the potter’s son Jaska are sweet and relatively harmless, though Matrona would never admit to thinking such things (he’s nine years younger than her, after all, and his parents are either perpetually drunk or mad).
Meeting the village’s mysterious tradesman brings Matrona’s pretty little life to a crashing halt. Slava has decided that Matrona is going to be the new caretaker of his dolls, whether she wants to be or not. His collection was made for a very specific purpose – which he doesn’t reveal to Matrona, not yet anyway – and Slava’s method for “separating” Matrona from her former life is to take her doll and force her to open all five of the nested figures, one after another.
Imagine a mistake you’ve made that you managed to hide from everyone, or something cruel you did that you never admitted to. Try to remember the most embarrassing thought you’ve ever had. Nope, more embarrassing than that. Maybe some people aren’t hiding anything about themselves. The rest of us would burn our house down to keep anyone from finding our internet search history. Matrona has always tried to be a good daughter to difficult parents, and all of a sudden the entire town knows everything she’s tried to keep hidden. All of it. And without questioning how they know, they all instantly judge her for every private thought that she might not even have admitted to herself.
And all of that was just the effect from opening the first doll.
Matrona is an incredibly resilient character (she would have to be, I mean my God…). Even when she’s terrified she still finds a way to verbally lash out at Slava for doing all this to her and not bothering to explain why. (Loved the way the two of them would snark at each other using just titles. “Tradesman.” “Dairymaid.”) I thought the growing romance between her and Jaska a tiny bit predictable, and I found myself wanting to shout “SAY SOMETHING” at those times when not even having all one’s private thoughts revealed is enough for two people to actually admit what they’re feeling. But it was nice to have some sweeter moments to balance out what can be a dark book at times (I’ll just say this: everyone is linked somehow to a doll that can be pulled apart. Nuff said.)
The theme of dolls-within-dolls is echoed many times in emotions being hidden behind a public facade, or secret motivations inside the ones people actual admit to, or good intentions being used to excuse truly awful ones. There are several mysteries wrapped up in the larger mystery of the village; on more than one occasion I tried to guess what someone was up to and got it completely wrong, and there were times that the mechanics of Slava’s magic went right over my head. That didn’t stop me from enjoying those moments where the author suddenly revealed the clever way that one world fits into another
When the action picks up it goes fast. Everything that Slava has been up to and his entire history is dropped on the reader all at once. I was kind of shocked that the mystery wrapped up so quickly; there were several loose ends, and in a way it felt like the book ended just when everyone’s story was really starting. It’s a little frustrating (this is supposed to be a standalone book, so apparently there won’t be a sequel), but I can admire an author who knows that the end of a book isn’t always the end of the story, and that a happily-ever-after doesn’t necessarily mean all the things that were broken can be easily fixed. Or fixed at all.
Just for fun, here’s a video showing how matryoshka dolls are constructed.