Fairy and folktale inspired stories are popular today, and for good reason. We can recognize beloved elements of the stories we grew up with (and that our ancestors grew up with!), reimagined into creative, complex new narratives. Some of these stories are more enjoyable than others, some of them fail to add anything compelling to the original tale. And then, there are stories that take a mythos (in this case Persian poetry) and transform it into something entirely unique and beautiful.
That’s the case with Tahereh Mafi’s Whichwood. I’ll admit, this book was completely a cover buy. You can’t quite tell in the second photo, but the matte cover shimmers, an effect I can’t get enough of in print books. Gorgeous art aside, I was not disappointed by the story itself. As a picky reader I often “graze” books, checking out a first sentence, first few pages, first chapter, before moving onto the next. Whichwood captivated me from the start and carried me all the way through the bittersweet story to the heart-warming conclusion. I may have even teared up along the way.
The story follows Laylee, the local mortician whose parents have left her with a mountain of newly (and oldly) dead villagers in need of the proper burial preparations. She is ‘destined to spend her days scrubbing the skins and souls of the dead’ and has learned to ‘ignore not only her ever-increasing loneliness, but the way her overworked hands are stiffening and turning to silver, just like her hair.’
Laylee has more or less accepted her fate as being simultaneously necessary and forgotten by the nearby village, her services taken for granted. Until two would-be rescuers (from Tahereh’s first book, Furthermore), come to offer their help. What follows is an excitingly whimsical and dark tale of a sad girl burdened with too much responsibility, as she finds hope in the form of two other outcasts intent on helping.
It’s delightfully grim, exactly how a fairy tale should be, with a surprisingly mature message about respecting the people who take on jobs in society that are not glamorous–or even viscerally unpleasant. Also, there are candy snowflakes.