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Sorrow’s Knot

by Erin Bow

After earning tremendous critical success with her debut novel, Plain Kate (winner of the 2011 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award), Erin Bow returns with a soul-bruising tale of death and madness.

Sorrow’s Knot centres on Otter, a young woman who lives in the forest village of Westmost, where death hides and hunts in the shadows, and takes on shapes that are “twisty like smoke, gelatinous like frogs’ eggs” and “gawk-stretched and ugly as a new-hatched bird with no feathers and skin over its eyes.” The ethereal leech-like creatures inflict painful wounds or cause the lungs to fill with fluid. Sometimes, death comes in the form of the White Hand – a shadowy, amorphous spirit with bone-white human hands whose touch burrows inside a person’s mind and causes madness before eventually eating its way out, leaving behind a monster in its own image.

Only the most powerful women in the village, known as binders (Otter’s mother, Willow, among them), are strong enough to create magical wards – knotted cords that bind the souls of the dead to ensure they do not return to hunt the living. When Willow is struck by the White Hand, Otter finds herself suddenly thrust into the role of binder, without the benefit of training.

The premise is a winner. Bow’s profound talent is her ability to infuse even the most horrific elements of her story with beauty, authenticity, and poeticism. But the book’s greatest strength is the way Bow uses ritual to fully realize the world of Westmost. While some fantasy writers devote their attention to the physical details of imaginary worlds or species, Bow focuses on how her society ritualizes transitions like birth and death. The people of Westmost, for instance, tie the ankles and wrists of their dead to wooden platforms before raising them up to rest in the tops of the trees outside their village. The result is a tangled web of flesh and bone when one looks to the sky.

While the setting feels very much like the Pacific Northwest with its abundance of pine trees and mountainous terrain, and the dress and customs are vaguely reminiscent of First Nations cultures, these are only influences on Bow’s original fantasy world. Like the cords that Otter must master to fend off the dead, Bow’s prose is powerful, insidious, and heart-squeezing. This book is brutal, beautiful, and not to be missed.