Spinning Silver Spins a Complex Tale of Debts

The cover of Spinning Silver depicts a dark-haired woman pouring gold coins from one hand into the other.

Del Rey Books

When I worked at a bookstore in high school, my manager always said, “You cannot tell a book by its cover, but you can sure sell a book by its cover.”

The cover of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, a loose adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin, beckoned to me; a woman releasing pieces of gold from one hand to another gave me the perception of a woman in control of her own life. The light-blue background with white drops of snow accompanied by a title with calligraphy lettering felt magical.

The premise of this book is that Miryem is the daughter of moneylenders, and she takes over the family business when her father’s attempt at collection does not bring any kind of profit to her family. Miryem mentions at the beginning of the book that her father “wasn’t very good at it. If someone didn’t pay him back on time, he never so much mentioned it to them. Only if our cupboards were really bare, or our shoes were falling off our feet . . . then he’d go, unhappy, and knock on a few doors, and make it sound like an apology when he asked for some of what they owed.” Miryem grows weary of the poverty that her family lives in and starts taking matters into her own hands by demanding people pay her family back. This is how she becomes the official moneylender in the town.

One of the things that is really significant in the book is the relationship between Miryem and a woman named Wanda. At the beginning of the book when Miryem seeks out people in her village who owe her family money, she finds that a man named Gorek owes more than he can ever pay back. He says in desperation when she asks for payment, “But I have four mouths to feed!” As an alternative, Miryem demands that his daughter Wanda come to her house everyday to do chores to pay off the debt.

The way that these women’s lives are woven together shows a lot of contrast in social class. Both women are still working as an extension of their fathers’ businesses, but while Miryem manages the family business, Wanda pays off of her father’s debts. When Miryem thinks about Wanda’s father, she mentions, “He had the right to borrow money from someone who would lend it to him, and the right to spend it as stupidly as he wanted, and the right to put his daughter to work to pay off his debt, and the right to take any money she earned. If she didn’t want to marry, there was nothing that she could do to be free of him.” This indicates to me that that Miryem is fundamentally aware of the differences of the social class between her and Wanda.

However, with statements like that, Miryem’s character may not be likable to all readers. Why is she not more sympathetic to the lives that are at stake behind the debts that she is collecting? This is something that her own mother is very concerned about throughout the novel, continuously lamenting how cold Miryem is about demanding that people pay the money that was owed. “[I] see you harden yourself to ice,” she tells her daughter.

Yet the real complexity is that collecting people’s debts is her family’s business and the way they have always brought money in. Miryem’s family is on the brink of poverty before she takes over the business. In one scene, she overhears women who owe her father money talking about feasts that they plan to cook. She reflects that, “It was coming on midwinter. They all wanted to have something good on the table . . . so they had sent my father away empty handed, and their lights shone out on the snow and the smell of roasting meat slipped out of the cracks while I walked slowly back to the baker, to give him a worn penny in return for a coarse half burnt loaf . . . He’d given a good loaf to one of his other customers, and kept a ruined one for us.” I would argue that this makes Miryem feel resentment for people living comfortably while it came at the expense of her own family’s survival.

I had mixed feelings about the author’s use of point of view. The first half of the book weaves between Wanda’s and Miryem’s points of view. It was refreshing to hear Wanda’s perspective on the events that took course in the narrative, though it was not always clear that there was going to be a change in who was telling the story. The first change in perspective happens in the middle of a chapter, and while there was a significant line break, I found that that this disrupted the narrative flow. I personally think that if there is going to be a change in point of view, it should occur in a different chapter, not in the same chapter. Even titling a chapter or section as “Miryem” or “Wanda” would have made this an easier book to read, as it would have provided a hint to which character the chapter was going to follow.

Later in the book it got even more confusing as to who was telling the story because the author introduces even more characters’ perspectives. That just did not work for me. While I do appreciate a diversity of voices, I should not have to play a guessing game about who is telling the story that I am reading. I also should mention that a trigger warning may be warranted when in comes to Wanda’s sections of the book, as there are very vivid depictions of domestic abuse. Readers who may have sensitivity to realistic descriptions of violence against women may want to skip this particular novel.

I have mixed feelings as to whether or not I feel I would recommend this particular novel. The changing points of view did lose me, and I was tempted to abandon the book at points, but I appreciate the way the idea of debt was handled from a very complex perspective.

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