Friday, 9 November 2012

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey has burst onto the bestseller lists with her debut book The Snow Child, based on a Russian fairytale. Ivey’s version is set in early twentieth century Alaska, where Jack and Mabel have settled in an attempt to escape their grief for the children they never had. During a bleak winter they build a little girl out of snow. The next morning footprints lead away from the spot where the snow child stood, and a girl is glimpsed in the forest.

Ivey’s depiction of homesteaders in Alaska is engaging, and it comes as no surprise to learn that she is Alaskan herself. Her personal knowledge of how to live off this wild land is put to good use. The land itself is also bought to life; the long bleak winters of frozen rivers and deep blankets of snow, followed by the mud and green of spring, are all beautifully described without leaving the reader feeling as thought they are wading through page after page of nature.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters. As they are new to this landscape we can be introduced to Alaska through their inexperienced eyes. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed, and for me that was one of the highlights of this novel. Ivey captures the care and tenderness each feels for the other, and the misunderstandings too. They are both torn apart and bound together by their shared grief. The harsh Alaskan landscape, and the entrance of Faina (the snow child) into their lives, forces them to adapt; their resilience is moving. Mabel’s journey in particular - from a comfortable middle class background, depressed and marooned in the wilderness, to, finally, a strong frontier woman, is especially well portrayed.

As a foil we are also introduced to their neighbours, Esther and George Benson, and their sons. They are salt of the earth homesteaders, and provide Jack and Mabel with much needed support early in the book. They also bring a dose of reality to the novel. When the story could feel quite claustrophobic - a couple alone in the wilderness, apart from an ethereal child - the Bensons are representative of the wider community. While Jack and Mabel are outsiders the Bensons belong in Alaska. Ivey uses them as the insider voice, providing the know-how of how to survive in this extraordinary landscape.

The question asked by this novel is - how real is the snow child Faina? Is it just coincidence that she appeared after Jack and Mabel built the snow girl, or did they really conjure her to life? Ivey plays with this idea throughout the novel, never really making her answer clear. I’m not sure she does this entirely successfully though, but I will get to that in a minute. What she does do well is find a way to tie in the original fairytale - Snegurochka - to the story. Mabel is familiar with the fairytale from her childhood. It becomes an obsession of hers, especially as in all the variants of the fairytale the snow child never stays. This is all done with a lightness of touch; Mabel’s worrying comes across as something akin to normal motherly concern.

Faina herself is very thinly drawn. The book is more about the effect she has others, than her as a person. Ivey does well to make her seem part of the Alaskan landscape: beautiful but with wilderness at her core. I didn’t quite understand why though, if Ivey wanted to preserve the mystery of Faina, she hinted at an explanation for Faina’s presence in the wild, one that was essentially quite grim. This happens reasonably early in the novel, and I initially thought that Ivey had explained her background, but then the more ethereal/fairytale origins continued to be important. I’m not sure it was the right decision. I struggled to ‘buy’ the mystery, partly because Ivey’s explanation of how she came to be alone was so believable and heartbreaking.

It isn’t a perfect novel, but it is an impressive debut. There was a lot to like in Ivey’s characterisation and her depiction of Alaska. I took it on holiday with me, and it was a great holiday read. It isn’t a groundbreaking novel, but I enjoyed it enough that I’d check out books Ivey publishes in the future.

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