Title: The Snow Child
Publisher: Headline Review
Hardback: 404 pages
Publication Date: 01/02/2012
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel is a thing of rare beauty and glittering brilliance that elegantly and effortlessly blends the real and the fantastical to create a tender story of tugs at the reader’s emotions.
Set against the harsh and uncompromising backdrop of 1920s Alaska, the plot revolves around its two principle protagonists, Jack and Mabel – an aging and childless couple feeling the strain as the Alaskan winter descends. Mabel, still grieving from a stillbirth ten years previous, feels isolated and alone. Jack, desperately trying to eke out a living for the couple, never smiles and rarely talks.
One night, as the snow falls around their cabin, and in a rare moment of playfulness and togetherness they decide to build a small child from snow – giving the child a scarf and mittens, and sculpting her face into that of a little girl. But the next morning they discover that the snow child has disappeared, and in its place they find only a small pile of snow and a set of footprints leading away from their cabin. And, as they soon discover, the snow child seems to have been replaced by a small, blonde-haired girl. One who will shape their lives in very different ways in the time to come.
The story itself is based on, and inspired by, Arthur Ransome’s translation of an old Russian folk tale [which is included at the back of the hardback edition of the novel]. And the reason why it works so well in The Snow Child is down to the manner in which Ivey carefully, and cleverly, ensures that she manages to maintain a balance between the magical and the real. As a reader we are never entirely sure whether the little girl is a flesh and blood being or not. And this puts us in exactly the same position that Jack and Mabel find themselves.
And this dissonance between the solid and the imagined is further added to by the stark, sparse, alien Alaskan landscape that Ivey brings to life in the novel, and by the claustrophobic isolation that Jack and Mabel experience in their remote cabin. Mabel begins to question her sanity. And who wouldn’t? Locked in the small confines of their log cabin, it isn’t a surprise that you begin to wonder whether cabin fever may be setting in.
Ivey, who lives in Alaska, brings the landscape to life with prose that never tries to be ostentatious, and thus always fits in with the environment and people that it is bringing to life on the page. And the plot itself had an almost glacial quality. This is not to say that it was slow, but rather that there is an almost inexorable quality about reading the novel. I found myself reading at what I thought was a far slower pace than my normal [extremely fast] pace, and then realizing that I had gone through a huge swathe of the book without really noticing myself do that.