Sunday, January 08, 2023

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu, a novel of women's lives and the oppressive patriarchy of medieval Moldova

The publisher’s tagline for this debut novel caught my attention: “In medieval Moldova, two women from opposing backgrounds fall in love.” What a unique setting! The novel’s illustrated cover, with its folkloric elements, also drew me in. It suits the story well.

The timeframe is kept vague, and external political events don’t intrude at all. In her introduction, Stela Brinzeanu (a London-based writer who was born in Moldova) writes of being haunted by a troubling folktale she heard as a child and how she wanted to give a voice to silenced women. This tale does play a role in the novel, but it contains much more than a straightforward folktale retelling. No spoilers here, though.

The protagonists are Elina, a boyar’s (noble landowner) daughter, and Mira, a young peasant woman trained as a potter by her father. The pair have spotted each other at a distance at church occasionally, though their divergent social stations mean they live very different lives. Elina’s father, Boyar Constantin, hopes to change her legal status to that of a son so she can inherit his wealth and property; he also wants her to marry her unpleasant cousin. In exchange for securing her inheritance, the voivode (local warlord) wants Elina’s father to build him a church, but previous masons hired for the job said the land was cursed.

The young women first come face to face when Mira crafts a beautifully colorful jug and delivers it to Elina at her family manor. Their troubles begin shortly after that: Mira falls through the ice on her way home and is rescued by Rozalia, an old herbalist and healer who had been the maid of Elina’s late mother. Rozalia, who is feared as a witch (you can guess where this subplot is going), becomes a significant figure in both women’s lives. One overarching theme is the importance of looking past assumptions and stereotypes, not just about Rozalia but women in general, including Elina’s mother – who had her own secrets.

All is related through the author’s smooth, fast-paced style. For a novel about two women who fight so strenuously to be together, they fall in love instantly and have little on-the-page chemistry. Their individual struggles against patriarchal control feel much more visible and urgent. The trials Elina and Mira undergo are dark and brutal, providing a wide-ranging picture of how being born female at this place and time was no picnic. Strong points, though, for the author’s presentation of their culture, encompassing societal roles, healing practices, religion, food, and music and dance. The many Romanian terms usually make sense in context, plus there’s a glossary at the end. And Set in Stone does wrap up the story in a very satisfying way.

Set in Stone (a title which has several meanings) was published by Legend Press in August 2022; I read it from NetGalley.

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