Does the name Baba Yaga provoke a frisson of unease in your mind? It did for me as I dredged up vague childhood reading memories of a forest-dwelling crone whose hut stands on the spindliest of chicken legs. An enduring character from Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga has been reimagined in The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson.
This is Marinka’s story, a young girl who lives with her grandmother Baba, in a wandering, sentient, chicken-legged house. Baba guides recently deceased souls into the next world, a role that Marinka dreads inheriting. She seeks the warmth and vitality of the living but her house and grandmother have other plans.
This strange and lovely book has been shortlisted for practically every major book award of 2019, and with good reason. In this richly imagined world, Sophie Anderson explores the idea of death as a journey, and she does so with great sensitivity.
Within the house there lies a mysterious portal to the next world, known as The Gate. Only the dead may use The Gate, and it is Baba’s responsibility to invite them into her home for a final evening on Earth, before guiding them through the portal, and wishing them peace as they return to the stardust from whence we all came.
These wonderful evenings are filled with feasting, music and reminiscence, as the dead ruminate on what they’ve gained from this life before they say goodbye. Abundant with vivid imagery, this is a dazzling concept.
In folklore, Baba Yaga is linked to the ancient goddess of death, and here we learn that she is not to be feared. But Marinka does not want to inherit her role, ‘…weighed down by the memories of the dead…a life of goodbyes.’ She is determined to pursue adventure and living friends, and when the house refuses to let her go, Marinka’s actions imperil all around her, both living and dead.
A striking, original and unforgettable read.
The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson with illustrations by Melissa Castillon and Elisa Paginelli, is published by Usborne Publishing, 336 pages.