Jul 24, 2014

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin BowSorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Otter, the protagonist of Sorrow’s Knot, is a binder. Like her mother Willow, Otter has the power to cast the magical knots that repel the restless dead and keep her community — Westmost, where the Shadowed People live — relatively safe. In a world where every shadow might hide something dark and ravenous, binders are invaluable. However, their power is far from simple. When Willow begins to be consumed by her binding, Otter realises she’s about to be put in a position she doesn’t feel ready for. Not only that, but she begins to suspect that there might be something wrong with the stories that shape and govern the relationship between the living and the dead. Along with her best friends Kestrel and Cricket, Otter has no choice but to delve deep into the myths of the Shadowed People, all in the hopes of finding out what the tales got wrong.

I’ve been really grateful for my reading lately, and Sorrow’s Knot — along with books like Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club or We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — is a huge part of the reason why. I want to take everything I said about Plain Kate a few months ago and multiply it by a thousand, because that’s what reading Sorrow’s Knot was like.

Like Bow’s earlier novel, Sorrow’s Knot is so completely my sort of thing that I can’t believe I wasn’t all over it the second it came out. It’s gorgeously written, devastating, hopeful, and basically everything I hope to find when I pick up a book. Additionally (and much like in Plain Kate), there’s something dark and ponderous about the writing that grabbed me straight away — it never feels cumbersome, but the novel’s voice is exactly what it needs to be to give it the emotional weight it requires to carry the story, and the final result is incredibly thoughtful and moving.

The myths and customs Sorrow’s Knot draws from are Native American in origin, and Otter and her people are not white. One of the many things reading criticism online has taught me (and which I’m deeply grateful for) is not to make careless claims of authenticity about works based on cultures I know next to nothing about. What looks like careful research and accomplished representation to me could be full of holes for someone with more knowledge, and I don’t want to make people cringe in the same way I cringe when I see Speaker for the Dead or The Summer Prince pass for accurate and culturally sensitive works. So I won’t: instead I’ll freely acknowledge that I’m not ideally positioned to assed Bow’s use of Native American elements in Sorrow’s Knot, but doing a bit of investigating online led me to her post at Diversity in YA about writing with respect and avoiding stereotypes. I especially like this bit:
Other people have thoughtfully articulated the reasons why “default to white” is bad – there are several. From a writer’s perspective, what I rarely hear discussed is the loss. The world is full of great traditions. That we limit ourselves – unconsciously, mostly – to those that are already so well-trodden is sad. Our literature could be so much richer. There are so many other rivers from which we could draw.
Sorrow’s Knot is thematically very rich, but there were two elements that particularly stood out for me: first, how this is a novel about stories and how they shape the world; secondly, how it deals so sensitively with loss and grief and letting go. The two themes are connected, because the stories the Shadowed People tell about the dead give form to their relationship with those they lose and to how they experience grief. I can’t quite do justice to Erin Bow’s sensitivity and nuance when writing about this; suffice to say that I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel whose treatment of grief touched me quite this much. I was reminded of the powerful impact the Lyra in the underworld scenes in The Amber Spyglass had on me so many years ago, and if you know me you’ll know that’s saying a lot.

Spoilers for this paragraph: a quick perusal of GoodReads revealed that some readers were disappointed with the ending of Sorrow’s Knot because they felt that Otter had been saved by Orca in the end, and that this played into troubling narrative tropes that undermine female heroines by placing them at the mercy of men. I understand the context for these concerns, of course, but my own reading of Otter and Orca’s kiss was so different. I didn’t see it as a rescue, but rather as a reminder that love binds us to the realm of the living. Our ties to one another, and to the things and places that we love, are often what keeps us going in the face of unbearable loss. This doesn’t have to be romantic love, and although I didn’t mind that it was in this case I’m happy that there are other stories out there where it’s not.

The romance also worked for me because it was framed as a beginning: we watch two people fall in love and invest in what they’re starting to build together, and then the narrative leaves enough space for the reader to imagine what might come next. Otter and Orca are young and have been through enough that they know there are no guarantees in this life, but their willingness to risk it with each other after everything they’ve lost is a moving and beautiful thing.

In sum: Sorrow’s Knot was ominous, dark and heartbreaking in the best possible way. I absolutely can’t wait for whatever Erin Bow publishes next.

Favourite bits (contain spoilers):
Cricket. They laughed over his memory, they cried over it. They were warm and fed, and nothing came at them in the darkness. They thought themselves as safe as they had ever been. They forgot, almost, what they had come to do: That they had come to find something, to find Eyrie, to find the living root of the stories about the dead. They did not notice that, apart from the holdfast itself, they had found nothing human at all. In that warm, sunlit place, the perfect place for humans to live — nothing human at all.

It was Otter’s first kiss, and Orca was no craftsman. There were things they didn’t know, such as what to do with noses. And yet they kissed each other, both of them frightened and broken — but they brokenness seemed to fit together to make a whole. Their noses found their tilt. The soft brush of lips just missing lips became something dead centre, something sure and hungry. Otter felt it rise from the deep places of her body, like the binding power finding the perfect balance in a knot. Orca made a grief noise in his throat and knotted his fingers in her hair. His thumb went under her cheekbone, pressed as hard as if he were sculpting her. She felt the t ears pool against his thumb joint. She was crying. They were both crying.
Reviewed at: Charlotte’s Library, By Singing Light, The Book Smugglers



  1. Oh, I'm so glad you loved this one! It really was absolutely one of my favorite books last year.

    I understand the context for these concerns, of course, but my own reading of Otter and Orca’s kiss was so different. I didn’t see it as a rescue, but rather as a reminder that love binds us to the realm of the living.

    I completely agree with this! I struggled to put it into words when we were discussing it at Someday My Printz Will Come, but never quite got there.

    I love the fact that Bow creates some of the downright scariest monsters I've ever read and then pulls the loop through, turns them not so much human as tragic and almost beautiful.

    Also: CRICKET.

  2. HA! I was just rereading Speaker for the Dead and thinking how dreadfully annoyed you were with it. And I was thinking about how firmly tied a person can become to the books she loves at fourteen (which is when I read Speaker for the Dead). Speak of the devil.

    I still haven't read Plain Kate, Ana! What is wrong with me? I am in a reading slump now, so this would be a good time for something wonderful.

  3. Maureen: CRICKET! I'll never be over it. And yes, yes, yes. Thanks for getting what I was trying to say so well.

    Jenny: I can definitely see what makes people like Speaker for the Dead, and there WAS plenty I liked about it. But it kind of became emblematic of the sort of lazy editing when it comes to languages other than English that annoys me so much :P Also, nothing is wrong with you, but you do need some Erin Bow in your life because she's just the best <3


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