The Sisters Grimm, by Menna van Praag
The Sisters Grimm, just released on March 31, is a wonderfully imagined modern fairy tale set in Cambridge, England. It follows four young women of wildly divergent backgrounds who nevertheless share striking similarities: each was born at the exact same time on the exact same day, each have absent fathers, each has a distinct affinity for a different element (fire, water, air, earth), each have vague dreams of a place apart from their everyday world.
These young women do not know each other now, but before, when they were children, they shared a now forgotten magical relationship in a land known as Everwhere. They are half sisters – but their father is the Devil, and when they turn 18 they must choose to either join him, or fight his soldiers to the death.
It’s difficult to craft a story incorporating both reality and the supernatural, but Menna van Praag does a masterful job in allowing us to believe in one while relating to the other. Each of her four main protagonists struggle in the “real” world, with finances, familial relationships, toxic masculinity and other acutely approachable issues, but each also has an inner strength (and capacity for love) that buoys them, along with abilities that are… curious. Each one is vastly different from the other: Bea is brash and confident, Liyana, dreamy and artistic, Scarlett is strong and responsible while Goldie is shy and diminished (but may be the most strongest of them all).
Yet it is only when they finally become aware of each other (again) that they not only gain understanding of all those mysteries of their childhood, but become aware of the power that lies at the heart of each of them. So these sisters are, indeed, part of our world yet also magically beyond it. Or are they? This book purports that it’s only telling the story of four out of the thousands of Grimm sisters that exist – and hints that each one of us (yes, males as well) may have a part in a different Grimm story. It’s a very compelling premise, and definitely one worth experiencing.
I will warn you, however, that this book’s chapters are comprised of very short vignettes, told from various viewpoints (most often one of the sisters, but occasionally from other supporting characters), jumping from first person to third person depending on the narrator, and often alternating between the present day and some 10 years earlier. This is effective for the most part, but did leave me hungering for occasional bouts of something more substantial and sustained. Also, the sole male character with his own POV vignettes, Leo, has a promising backstory that also transcends both the supernatural and the mundane, but his characterization is not strong enough to keep him from being more than mere exposition dressed up as a weak emotional foil. I actually skipped some of his vignettes, because of the “yeah, yeah, I got it already” factor.
(Plus, as someone whose day job is in hospitality, I was quite upset with the casual acceptance of hotel housekeeper Goldie stealing items from guest rooms as a given; this perpetuates a hurtful stereotype that has no business being used as a lazy way to move a plot forward.) Oh, but the sisters themselves (Goldie’s thievery notwithstanding) are wonderfully imagined, each of them. I was especially drawn to Bea, although she is most unlike me – headstrong, outspoken, unafraid. She is the one who knows the most, who is less afraid of the darkness that wends its way through the sisters’ existence, and she is the one who is least afraid to fly. But each of the sisters is well rendered within their own personality and their own set of circumstances, and together, they are truly magnificent.