Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, The Snow Child was a bestseller on hardback publication, and went on to establish itself as one of the key literary debuts of 2012.

Alaska, the 1920s.  Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before.  When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration,
The Snow Child is an instant classic.
Amazon description

This book seems to be everywhere – the publisher certainly has been pushing it. I bought my hardback copy at a price of a bargain paperback. At the time I was not considering my magic realism challenge, so for a while it sat in my to-read book pile waiting for an appropriate time. That time came with the challenge. So is the book worth the publisher’s efforts? In one word – yes. This is my sort of book – undoubtedly magic realism, beautifully written with well-drawn characters.

In plotting terms the book is not overly complex, it can’t be being so closely based on the fairytale. Fairytales are a wonderful source of ideas for books, but by definition they tend to be short and stripped down. The fairytale is referred to throughout the book including the various endings of the different versions, this sets up part of the plot driver of the book – which ending will the writer opt for or none. Will, as in the Life of Pi, we be told at the end that there is a rationale reason for the magic? Some of the characters, including at times Jack, try to explain away the unearthly nature of Faina. There are times in the book where the story appears to be going in that direction. I will not spoil the ending for you by revealing which the path the books takes in the end. Another plot driver is the nature of Faina – is she a real human child, is she created by the couple from the snow or is she both?

As I seem to be saying a lot in my reviews on this blog, the setting of the book – the Alaskan wilderness – is almost as much a character as the humans who inhabit it. Eowyn Ivey lives in Alaska and describes it superbly – its beauty, richness and starkness. It is a landscape of contrasts. The seasons are extreme, with the winter dark and deep with snow, the summer with endless sun "the colors were too sharp full of yellow sun and blue sky" the spring "a damp, moldy dreariness, something like loneliness." The landscape and its weather impacts on the feelings of the characters. Faina of course is of the snow, which fills the books pages in drifts, she has the delicacy of a snowflake and the toughness of a cranberry bush in winter. The Alaskan wildlife features prominently in the book, Faina has a fox companion and both she and the other characters are very capable of hunting, killing and gutting animals for food, something described in some detail.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Jack and Mabel. This delighted me, it rang so true. As a 50-something woman I was pleased to see that the writer showed the love between the two, whilst at the same time exploring how when we love someone so dearly we are sometimes afraid to express our feelings. The two still have moments of high spirits and it is in one of those that they create the snow child in the yard. I read on Goodreads a reviewer saying that the couple’s grief at the loss of a baby annoyed her because it suggested that people (women) were not fulfilled without children. I had no such problem - for some people the loss or absence of children can be a constant pain and such people are driven to do desperate things. Perhaps it is Mabel’s longing that it is the magic that initiates the snow girl. Mabel is not a weak little female, as the book progresses and as Jack is forced by circumstance to accept, she becomes an active participant in taming the land. 

Did the ending work for me? I’m not sure. It is one of those endings that niggles, I keep going over it, playing with it and seeing different angles. As Mabel’s sister writes to her: "We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow."

1 comment:

SilverRaindrops said...

It is interesting that you liked the love between the couple. I felt that in the beginning they lived alongside the other, and needed to find a way to each other again.

I'm not sure about the ending either. I've heard that a lot of people don't like it. But it is the author's choice to pick what she thinks is right. I think she will have had her reasons.