Believe it or not, I’m reading a proof copy here… oops. I started The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey more or less as soon as the proof copy arrived from Headline, back in 1884 or whenever it was that it was sent (erm, 2011?) but wasn’t in the right head space to be reading it, and popped it back on the shelf, knowing I’d go back to it.
Well, with a repeat of A Century of Books lined up for 2014, I’m enjoying delving into 21st-century literature in my post-thesis binge. Indeed, I finished reading this shortly after I submitted my thesis, and before I flew to America, so it’s taken a little while to review. And it’s every bit as good as everyone was saying it was, back when it first came out.
It’s your standard fantastic creation story… a lonely woman who longs for a child accidentally creates one, and then begins to lose control over her creation. The story is remarkably similar to Edith Olivier’s The Love-Child – and even more similar, overtly so, to the Russian fairytale ‘The Snow Maiden’. With my interest in novels of this ilk, it’s as though it were written for me. But, as with any updating of fairytale, what is important is the way in which the tale is told. Ivey does it beautifully.
Mabel and Jack have moved to the middle of snowy nowhere in Alaska, 1920, and live quietly, working hard to keep their farm going. Both characters are quite shy and keep their emotions to themselves, but it’s clear at the same time that these silent emotions run deep – so deep that any hint of them is unbearably painful. And yet, shy as they are, they somehow make friends with their jolly neighbours Esther and George.
“I suppose I’m the black sheep. No one else in my family would think of living on a farm, or moving to Alaska. My father was a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania.”
“And you left all that to come here? What in God’s name were you thinking?” Esther shoved Mabel playfully on the arm. “He talked you into it, didn’t he? That’s how it often is. These men drag their poor women along, taking them to the Far North for adventure, when all they want is a hot bath and a housekeeper.”
“No. No. It’s not like that.” All eyes were on her, even Jack’s. She hesitated, but then went on. “I wanted to come here. Jack did, too, but when we did, it was at my urging. I don’t know why, precisely. I believe we were in need of a change. We needed to do things for ourselves. Does that make any sense? To break your own ground and know it’s yours free and clear. Nothing taken for granted. Alaska seemed like the place for a fresh start.”
Esther grinned. “You didn’t fare too badly with this one, did you, Jack? Don’t let word get out. There aren’t many like her.”
Though she didn’t look up, Mabel knew Jack was watching her and that her cheeks were flushed. She so rarely spoke so much in mixed company. Maybe she had said too much.
These sections actually reminded me a bit of Betty Macdonald’s The Egg and I, although that is a comedy; the same hardships and marital tensions come about because of giving everything to a working farm.
It swiftly becomes clear that the thing missing the in the lives of Mabel and Jack is not simply money or an assistant, but a child – and, of course, one materialises. A child made out of snow turns – it seems – into a real child, called Faina. She is quiet and undemonstrative; Ivey cleverly changes the way dialogue is spoken in any scene in which Faina appears, so that it isn’t announced by speech marks but blended into the narrative. In the same way, Faina seems to blend into the natural world, never quite leaving it to be their child, always disappearing into the snow. She willingly wears the beautiful coat Mabel makes, but she is still wild – like Clarissa in The Love-Child, she cannot really be contained.
And then there is the question, unearthed by Jack, as to who Faina really is. Is she a miracle, crafted from snow? Or is she all too human, abandoned and homeless on the snowy mountainside? Well, obviously I’m not going to tell you. Nor am I going to tell you about the other complication that arrives, which again mirrors the plot of The Love-Child (and which, I realise, probably means that Edith Olivier probably read ‘The Snow Maiden’.)
Eowyn Ivey has met with a lot of success with this novel, and deservedly so. The Snow Child is written with a beautiful simplicity – or a simple beauty, if you like – with emotions always playing out near the surface; there isn’t much introspection, or a web or words trying to weave a complex portrait of an emotional state, but rather Mabel and Jack’s urgent feelings are clear to the reader (even while they are hidden from others.) What I mean to say is, sometimes the deepest and most complicated situations require only simple words; sometimes the simplest words can convey the deepest sorrow and be more moving than any over-wrought passage. I know I’m not alone in being very affected by The Snow Child – my friend from OUP admitted that it made him cry, and I’ve got to say I liked him even more after that confession – and it is a novel which requires some sort of emotional stability in its reader, or it would be too heartbreaking from the outset. But, oh, it’s worth it.
As I wrote earlier, this novel could have been crafted for me and my interests – and it got a mention in my thesis – and I was surprised, but pleased, to see how widely it was admired and loved. Rightly so. Eowyn Ivey is a significant new talent, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from her.