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Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a magical, if somewhat puzzling tale, of a mysterious girl in the life of an heartbroken couple.
Review by Anne John
Set in the 1920s, The Snow Child is the story of an old couple Mable and Jack, who retreat into Alaska in the hopes of getting over the loss of their only child and to start a new life together. But the harsh and empty wilderness of Alaska does not offer them any solace as they had hoped it would. Instead they find themselves gradually growing apart as they struggle to set up their homestead. One day in a light-hearted moment, they build a snow girl – only to find that somehow, a little child, Faina enters into their lives offering them joy and relief from their yearning.
Based on a Russian fairytale, The Snow Child is a story of heartbreak and suffering; as it is also of hope and finding love and happiness again. Or should I say finding contentment despite the knowledge that sorrow and disappointment lurk in the shadows, as there is a strong sense of foreboding blanketing the entire novel, even in its most tender moments.
The author lives in Alaska and her love for her home is evident in her beautiful descriptions. She paints striking images with her words and attention to detail: ‘When Jack rinsed the fish in the creek, the small, iridescent scales shimmered and scattered in the water, drifted on the current, and washed up against the rocks like transparent sequins. “They’re kind of pretty, aren’t they Papa?” the boy said, a single scale pasted to his fingertips.’
Her writing also shines through in the poignant moments of the book especially in the first half of the book, capturing the angst of the childless couple succinctly: “No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbour children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence.”
The story touches upon different versions of love; be it the reawakening of an old and comfortable love, the devotion of parental love or the impulsiveness of young love. I found the main characters to be well-etched, be it Mabel who desperately wants to have an equal part in setting up their homestead or Jack who views his wife’s every disappointment as his own failure. Their affectionate and boisterous neighbours Esther, George and their sons come as a breath of fresh air. The only person whose characterization remains a mystery, perhaps deliberately so, is Faina – and therein lies the book’s as well as the reader’s dilemma. One cannot be sure if this is a fantasy story or a realistic one. The author keeps us guessing by throwing in instances where realism merges with fantasy, until you’re not sure what to make of it all; leaving one with a slight dissatisfaction at the end due to this indecision.
The book spans several long years and while the story itself is relatively slow-moving and not something which can be quite described as gripping, it piqued my curiosity enough to make me wonder ‘What happens next?’ and I read it in long stretches of time.
The Snow Child is a fascinating debut novel which captivates your senses and transports you to the wintry wonderlands of Alaska, with its snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes and cosy log cabins which tell stories of a different kind.
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