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.