BY chapter five, 50 pages into a debut novel to be relished for all the right reasons, Eowyn Ivey’s fictional world of Alaskan bleakness and wintry bite had me feeling baleful, ready to quit.
Jack and Mabel, its pioneer hopefuls, middle-aged, fatigued, depleted — Mabel suicidal in the teeth of her second season amid the white vastness — are struggling vainly, both with the climate and with terrible memories of the loss of their baby boy many years before, a shared psychic burden. Then something happens.
‘Jack woke to the cold … Not far from the pillow where Mabel slept, frost crept between the logs with its feathery crystals … he pulled the quilt up over her shoulder … As he reached for his boots he saw a flicker though the trees … Fresh snow blanketed the ground … at the edge of the forest, he saw it again. A flash of blue and white … A little figure that dashed through the trees. Slight. Quick. A little girl, disappearing.’
The reader recognises at once the blue and white colours of the woollen scarf and mittens which Jack and Mabel had given the sculpture of a snow child Jack had built a few days before outside the cabin. Now, in its place, without mittens or scarf, lies the broken snow heap.
The novel’s temperature, in that instant, rises sharply – from dark, debilitating bleakness approaching tragedy – into the glittery realm of magic, the passing streak of a fairytale child with flying blonde hair, like a sprite of hope amongst the dour trees, conveying a pale reflected brightness. And with it everything has changed.
Faina, the snow child, weaves from that moment like an ever-broadening band of rainbow light into the lives of the ageing couple, their tentative, intermittent contact leading slowly towards bonds of trust and mutual affection. Faina enters their cabin warily, bringing gifts from the icy wilderness, a place of wolves and bears where she seems, unbelievably, to thrive. During summer, when Jack works the farm, she stays away. Mabel lives for their winter reunions.
Eowyn Ivey makes clear the novel’s intended direction without playing games of over-hyped tension with the reader. The girl will return, grow to womanhood, and beguile everyone she meets. The mystery of whether she is human, half-human or fairy is not resolved. Once, she takes Jack to a forest clearing to show him a corpse, preserved by the cold. It is her father, she claims. Jack buries him, saying nothing about it to Mabel.
Jack tracks Faina to a door hidden deep on a hillside – her winter home? Her hunting companion is a fox. She leads an otherworldly, will-o’-the-wisp existence. Mabel fears for Faina’s survival, seeing parallels with the heroine of a fairy tale she had loved as a tiny girl, in which a snow maiden’s life is perilously poised between death and life as she flirts with the ways of the human world.
That danger is here presented by Garrett, a neighbouring trapper who, to Faina’s sadness and anger, kills her fox; inevitably they fall into a swoon of love, spending time canoodling in the forest. It is no surprise when Faina falls pregnant. Their child will be born – but as fairy or human? – and will Faina transform from free-spirit, to earthbound mother? Can she survive?
The fragile love story is the heart of the novel, not missing a beat, its sensitive telling preserving both innocence and thrill while suggesting the breaking down of a spell. The snow child – no longer a child but a woman – offers Mabel and Jack her baby. Their chance for fulfilment? Hers for freedom? Is this a signal of Faina’s intention to leave?
Alongside the mystery and magic of the folk tale runs a story of everyday life. Mabel and Jack make friends with neighbours, and, by this means, pioneering life, with its stoic resistance, shines through in abundance. We see the trapper/farmer existence of the men, the vibrant sorority of the women, bringing humour to the grimness.
This gritty reality anchors the fairy tale, and provides an essential basis of credibility to the narrative. Sometimes domestic detail, or tracts of descriptive lyrical snowscape, become superfluous. More of the darker early history of Jack’s and Mabel’s relationship would have sharpened the novel’s finale. Nonetheless, this book is affecting. Worth persevering with. Eowyn Ivey, a finely tuned writer, has made her mark.
• Eowyn Ivey will read from The Snow Child at the Elphinstone Hotel, High Street, Biggar on Saturday 18 February at 1pm. Tickets £20 for lunch and a discount on the book.
• The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, 404pp, £14.99
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
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