The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I normally avoid books that are getting either a lot of hype in the book world in general or suddenly appearing in a flurry of rapturous reviews on book blogs. I am not sure quite why this is, but it is indeed the case. ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey has been one such book, rumblings about it started at the end of last year when proofs went out, then it got chosen for the Waterstones 11 and in the last few weeks I have seen it mentioned, with rave reviews, on several book blogs I visit. I have to admit had it not been for the fact that Gavin and I are interviewing Eowyn for The Readers tonight I would have left it a while, instead I am now going to add to the glowing reviews that you may well have already come across here, there and everywhere. This is a marvellous book.

Headline Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have always been a fan of fairytales for adults. Books which spell bind you as an older, wiser reader and yet in some way bring back the comfort, endless magical possibility and thrills of your early reading years. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel ‘The Snow Child’ is a prime example of a writer getting the mix of these two elements just right. Ivey takes the reader on a rather magical journey in Alaska in 1920, cleverly though she actually gives the book a timeless feel, as apart from a few famous authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which feature in the book this could actually have been set at any period in the remote snowy wilderness, more on that later, lets discuss the story first.

 Jack and Mabel are a married couple who since the still birth of their first and only child have been drifting apart in their own separate insular isolated worlds within the very real world of isolation that is the Alaskan wilderness. This was meant to be the place that made them, a place where they started a whole new life together. Now in their 50’s what was once paradise has become a snowy frozen wasteland and not just in terms of their surroundings but also their emotions. Neither feels that they have a bond with the other, all the unspoken things becoming chasms rather than cracks in their relationship. Mabel in particular, who wanted this so much, if not the most, seems to be dealing with all of this the worst.

‘They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.’

One night however things change, thanks to a random snowball fight which proved to be one of the most moving scenes I have read in years (you need to read it to believe it – I admit I welled up), and the couple decide to build a snowman, only soon they have created a snow girl, yet the next morning it has vanished, replaced by a trail of a child’s footsteps from where it stood leading into the forest. It is not long after this that Jack and Mabel start to see, initially always in the peripheral, glimpses of a young girl and a fox dashing through the fields and woods near their house, they even separately start to talk to her. Could they have magically somehow created a child of their own from snow?

I will leave the plot at that point for fear of spoilers. I will say that Eowyn Ivey plays a very clever game of making the reader wonder if this girl could be real or not early on as when she does start to speak back it is never in quotation marks it is just inserted in the narrative. Could this therefore be a figment of this couples imagination or their way of dealing with grief, after all the other locals (including the wonderful Esther) have never seen this young girl and they have lived there longer and therefore must know everything. Also, because we get the internal dialogues of Jack and Mabel as the reader while they themselves barely communicate with one another, we wonder all the more.

Another clever device in Eowyn Ivey’s tale was including the Russian fairytale ‘Snegurochka’ (which inspired Arthur Ransom’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, which inspired Eowyn to write this novel itself) in the book as a favourite tale of Mabel’s as a child. She couldn’t read the language, but she could certainly understand the illustrations of this tragic children’s bedtime story. That tale too is of a man and woman, unable to have children, creating a girl out of snow, but could this mean that Mabel already knows the fate her snow child’s before her life has truly begun? If of course she exists.

If I have made that sound complicated I apologise as it’s not at all, it is all woven together wonderfully and this leads me to Eowyn Ivey’s writing which is second to none, and what a storyteller too. When I started the book I was thinking ‘how on earth is this going to last over 400 pages’ but it whizzed by, no saggy dragged out middle and most importantly no endless descriptions of snow. Without ever over egging the snowy pudding and mentioning snow every other word the cold atmosphere is always present but never mentioned too much. In fact I have probably mentioned snow much more in every sentence of this review than Eowyn does in the book herself. That said when she does its beautiful, especially in the dreams that haunt Mabel. A possible sign of cabin fever closing in?

‘Snowflakes and naked babies tumbled through her nights. She dreamed she was in the midst of a snowstorm. Snow fell and gusted around her. She held out her hands and snowflakes landed on her open palms. As they touched her skin, they melted into tiny, naked newborns, each wet baby no bigger than a fingernail. Then wind swept them away, once again just snowflakes among a flurry of thousands.’

I think the best thing which Eowyn Ivey did for me on top of all the above (this sounds like a gushing review because it is, I can find no real fault with the book at all) was that I really cared about all her characters, especially Jack and Mabel. With so much time to think and so little distraction they often reflect on their lives leading to this point. We, as the reader, are then given their background through these reflections and can see how much they loved each other, how it has all changed since and of course how it changes after the snow child appears. I really cared about them and hoped beyond all hope that this fairytale might have a happy ending for all concerned. Does it? Well, you would have to read the book to find out.

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.


Filed under Books of 2012, Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, Review

36 responses to “The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

  1. So pleased you enjoyed The Snow Child. It’s such a beautiful piece of fiction even in its brooding moments. I felt the same as yourself and could not find fault in its pages. Such a stunning début and her follow up sounds just as good!

    • I know nothing of her follow up, I will have to ask her about it tonight. Thanks for your questions by the way, will see which ones I can fit in.

      I was so thrilled with this book it was untrue, and actually was a perfect read after my book block last week. Hooray for the Readers (and Eowyn) helping me out.

  2. gaskella

    This is going to be the next book I read, and yesterday I dug out my copy of the Arthur Ransome Old Peter’s Russian Tales to re-read the Little Daughter of the Snow which has a big sting in the tail, the stuff of many a fairy tale. Can’t wait.

  3. This book has been recommended to me by so many people. I’ve bought it and will pick it up immediately after sales conference. So much reading to do before then!

    • Blimey, what exactly happens with a sales conference Michael just out of interest?

      This book is just wonderful, I think both you and Anne would really enjoy it indeed. A very accomplished debut novel.

  4. Ahhh I loved this book too. It’s magical without being naff, moving without being over sentimental, and ambiguous enough to keep you guessing beyond the ending. And yes, that scene where they build the snow child nearly had me blubbing too!

    • ‘Magical without being naff’ is brilliant! The snow ball fight was just too much, who would have thought such a simple scene could be so emotionally over flowing, marvellous stuff.

  5. I read this just before Christmas and I loved it too. It’s such a beautiful story, isn’t it? Like you, I was impressed with the way the author created such a lovely cold, snowy atmosphere without the writing becoming overly descriptive.

    • A lot of authors would have honed in on the atmosphere, Ivey does so much better in concentrating on the story and the main characters but making the snowy atmosphere and wilderness ever present in the back ground, its all done with the slightest touch.

  6. I’m looking forward to listening to Eowyn on The Readers.

  7. Hmmm, looks like I’m remaining the only person who didn’t fall hook, line and sinker for this book. Still, it would be a dull world if we all thought alike.

  8. I have literally skipped over your review Simon because I bought this book on the weekend and am waiting to read it myself – although I did catch the phrase “gushing review” which has me excited!

    • Hahaha don’t worry about skipping, I didn’t skip some of the reviews (as this book is everywhere) on this book, but fortunately (and I hope I have done the same) they didn’t give too much away, just enthused too.

  9. I finished this book last night but could have actually finished it two nights ago but I was drawing it out as long as possible to savour it. It’s such a beautiful book. I loved Jack, especially but also wish that Mabel was my mother as she is just so warm-hearted and I love the way her ‘fun’ side comes out as the story develops. She also becomes much less ‘delicate’ as she learns to live in the bleak, harsh Winter of Alaska and embraces life as a ‘Homestead wife.’ I loved this book so much despite – or maybe because of – the ’emptiness’ and loneliness of it all. Beautiful.

    • I did have the same initial desire to make this drag out I have to say but in the end I thought ‘oh sod it’ and just let the whole story wash over me in one go and it was superb. I havent felt that wrapped up in a book or had that desire to just be that lost in a book for quite some time. It reminds me why I shouldnt bother we books that are simply ‘meh’.

  10. Eva

    You’ve convinced me that I should give this a go! 🙂

  11. Ah, you have me intrigued. I’m like you and tend to avoid the hype for a bit just because of oversaturation. However, I’ve been rather slack in keeping up with my blog reading so this is the first review I’ve read of the book:) I haven’t read an adult fairy tale in a while so will check this one out. Especially since you loved it so much!!!

    • I really did love this Sakura, it just took me off on a magical journey and a tender and touching one too. I know what you mean about hype (I just commented on your review of The Night Circus which I think I failed with in part because of all the hype, I think Polly loves it) and if I hadn’t been interviewing Eowyn for the podcast it would have lingered a while.

      That said it does show some books are hyped for a reason.

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  15. Lovely to read your review – working my way backwards, I wasn’t aware of the hype, but requested ‘The Snow Child’ after reading just one interview with Eowyn Ivey, because it elicited some kind of feeling that told me this had the promise of being something I would really enjoy and I did; that ‘real, or not real’ element, leaving it to the imagination of the reader really appeals to me, putting back some of the magic and mystery into storytelling and allowing differences to be admired and celebrated in a quiet way.
    That ice river walk scene really got me and it being so early on, I knew it was going to be a great tale. Thanks for an insightful and touching review.

    • Thank you for your kind comment Claire. I loved this book but here at least, I am not sure if you are in the UK or not, it has been a book which has recieved a lot of attention in the last few months. I was expecting it to get more by being on the Orange Prize Longlist, I am most shocked that it isn’t. Its a great book and one I think deserves the hype and a big readership.

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  18. I finally got round to reading this book and was relieved to find that I too loved it. I remembered you talking about the speech marks on The Readers and kept noticing where they were and weren’t used. So subtle and clever! And I was glad to find that my copy included the Arthur Ransome tale too, which was a lovely extra. Not so sure about the reading group suggested questions, but then I usually find those a bit condescending.

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