Kev Harrison’s debut novella delivers an enchanting folkloric story with an eco-warning sting in its tail: be kind to nature, or destroy it at your peril.
The Balance draws on the enigmatic figure of Baba Yaga, well-known from Slavic folktales, but instead of the ancient witch being the centre of the narrative, she happily provides the framework for the struggle a charming young protagonist has to battle.
Against the backdrop of Cold War Poland (although it’s so timelessly written that it could truly be set at any time), ten-year-old Kuba breaks his ankle falling out of a tree while he and older sister Natalia were foraging in the forest by their village.
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This is no simple accident: this is Poland, where “in mid-winter, the cold was a tangible enemy, biting at you from the moment you stepped away from the fire”. As blood and bone mix with fresh falling snow, making the delivery of medical supplies near-impossible, the possibility of Kuba’s wound becoming dangerously infected rises.
The children are cared for by their mother, Beata, who’s been struggling since their father left the family. Kuba’s condition worsens, and Beata cruelly blames her daughter for the accident; she should have been looking after him but took her eyes off him for just a moment.
Desperate Natalia comes up with an idea – a trip to Baba Yaga, a wise old woman learned in the old ways, who requires nothing but secrecy as payment. Against her god-fearing mother’s wishes, they venture back into the forest to find her, and hopefully a cure for Kuba’s injury. This triggers a series of unnatural events which end in a final horrific, heartbreaking act.
Harrison has spent a lot of time laying the groundwork: a dynamic picture of a tightknit family, in an even tighter community, where life is hard. A series of events occur – beginning with what is viewed as a transgression of faith – which upsets the ancient balance between nature and humankind. The God-fearing village are quick to make judgements (to describe them would spoil the surprises), and through Natalia’s eyes are shown to be narrow-minded and unkind – the polar opposite of Natalia herself.
The novella tackles grand themes in the context of a battle to survive and is concluded in such a way that should bring tears to the eyes of the hardest of readers. It opens a dialogue on how blinding devotion to one particular ideal can be when one is too blinkered and unwilling to accept other ways of life, and fear of the masses and how right it is that power is held by a handful of individuals.
It took me a little while to place the action in the time period. Otherwise, this is the best kind of novella – an exhilarating hour or so in the company of an assuredly written narrative. The story is crafted well and executed precisely, in a beautifully bleak setting tinged with magic.
There are expressive, evocative descriptions of the landscape – it is drenched in snowdrifts, skeletal trees and biting winds until winter makes way for spring, and the detail seated deep within the fates which befall particular villages is delightfully gruesome.
The Balance delivers a timeless cautionary tale of tolerance, in which nature can choose to be destructive as well as nurturing.
The Balance by Kev Harrison is published by LVP Publications.