My Rating: 4 stars
Many thanks to Tin House and NetGalley for the ARC! This book was released on April 5 2022 and is now available for purchase.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches follow Mitya, a young boy growing up in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mitya doesn’t fit with his culture’s construction of masculinity; he’s delicate and pretty rather than strong and tough, and sometimes, when he is alone in the apartment, he likes to put on make up and dress as a girl. After the death of a homeless man he befriended, Mitya begins to explore Moscow and meet people who have been affected by the war in various ways. This book is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Kazbek’s writing is lovely and fairy tale-esque, and Mitya is such a wonderfully drawn character. I loved watching him figure out the world around him and himself. But this was also quite hard to read at times. It heavily features the physical and sexual abuse of a child, so be aware of that when picking up the book
Interwoven with Mitya’s story is a reimagining of Koschei the Deathless, a figure from Russian folklore. Koschei is the antagonist of many fairy tales, generally kidnapping the hero’s love interest. From the beginning of the story, Mitya feels a connection with Koschei, whose soul is hidden inside a needle. When Mitya is a toddler, he swallows a sewing needle his grandmother dropped. While his family is convinced it will kill him eventually, Mitya believes it provides him guidance and protection. Kazbek reimagines Koschei as a genderqueer character who is rejected by his family for dressing as a woman. While I’m familiar with Koschei the Deathless, I’m not well-versed in Russian fairy tales, so I’m sure there’s quite a bit I missed in this section. I want to return to the book after reading up more on the subject. But even without much knowledge, these parts of the book were enjoyable, and it was interesting to see the parallels between Koschei’s story and Mitya’s.
My only complaint with the book was that there are some odd point of view switches. The whole book is told in the third person, and it is mainly limited to Mitya’s perspective. However, sometimes Kazbek would wander into another character’s head for just a few sentences. It happened frequently enough that I noticed it but not frequently enough for me to consider the book told from third person omniscient. It’s a very minor issue with the book, and I probably only noticed it because I’m sensitive to point of view switches. It certainly doesn’t affect the beauty of the book in anyway.
Overall, Little Foxes Took Up Matches is a stunning coming-of-age novel that blends fairy tale and reality to explore gender identity. It’s absolutely beautiful, and I highly recommend it.