Monday, 11 March 2013

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Another Broadway Book club choice, another debut novel that I would have never usually read! This novel tells the story of a middle aged couple, Jack and Mabel, in the 1920s who, after a tragic miscarriage of a much-wanted and only child, move to the Alaskan frontier to start again.  They've grown apart over the years and their lack of children has only served to distance them more.  In a rare spell of happiness and bonding, they build a snow-child one night in their yard and after that are visited each winter by what they believe to be their snow child made real.

One of the best things about this book is the sense of place that is established.  Although, I always find that snowy locations always come alive much more easily than any other type of setting.  Independent of what is written by whom, there's a magic quality about snow that allows the imagination to really go crazy.  You would have to be a truly inept author to not manage to make snow seem real and magical.  

We did discuss this book at our meeting last week, but I'm going to limit this post to the thoughts that I had whilst reading it, or it would be huge!

I don't really believe in spoilers, but I know some people do, so:

*Spoilers*   *Spoilers*  *Spoilers*

I think the thing that annoyed me the most about this book was that it tried to be two things at one.  The author is trying to have her ambiguity cake and eat it.  Ivey goes to great length to illustrate the other-worldliness of the snow child.  She's a fairy, a nymph, a ghost or a spirit.  She describes how she appears and disappears in the blink of an eye, she's so slight and pale but is able to survive, alone and wearing only a thin dress and moccasins, the harsh and impossible winters in the Alaskan wilderness.  She wilts and overheats indoors, suggesting that she's almost made of snow.  She conjures flurries of flakes and leaves no footprints behind her in the snow.  For the first half of the book, this unknowingness is maintained.  Is Faina real or is she imaginary?  Whenever Mabel talks about her to Esther, her no nonsense, mother of four neighbour, it seems that there is no real evidence of the existence of Faina.  Nobody sees her over the course of about 8 years, she leaves no tracks, the snow angels she makes with Jack and Mabel disappear within minutes.  Esther humours her friend, but puts it down to 'Cabin Fever'.  Jack will never talk about Faina to anybody other than his wife.  This half of the novel works well.  It's never truly established either way.  BUT THEN.  We discover that Faina has a flesh and blood father.  He is dead, but he is real life none the less.  She is seen by other eyes.  She is seduced.  She becomes pregnant and produces a real-life baby.  There can be no ambiguity now.  However Ivey still tries to maintain the suggestion of other-worldliness.  But it just doesn't work now.  It can't now there is concrete evidence of her existence. 

Incidentally, the novel seemed to suggest that only by having children can a woman be made 'real'.  Esther is a productive, confident and fulfilled woman.  It seems that having 4 sons has played its part in this.  As Martha experiences her virtual mother/daughter relationship with her Snow Child, she becomes more independent, happier and productive.  She rides horses, shoots guns and plants turnips.  But it's only once she experiences a type of motherhood via Garret and Faina. Her improved relationship with her husband is attributed to the Faina factor too. On top of than, nobody sees Faina as a woman until she is pregnant.  I know it's set in the 1920s, so I guess people would've expected children, but it was written in 2012.  I'd have liked to have maybe seen a more modern attitude.   I'd like to think it's possible to entertain the possibility of a happy life without children.  Yet another reason why (in my opinion) Faina should've proven to be imaginary.  A placebo.

The first half, whist it maintains the unknown, I quite enjoyed.  I liked the relationship between Jack and Mabel, how they were slowly rebuilding their marriage.  Good friends, hard work and a new satisfaction in seeing real fruits of the labour made them into new people.  Their lives were no longer defined by void, like they had been in the past.  Their relationship with Garrett too, made good reading; how he could really flourish away from his own family and become a dependable, valued worker, friend and surrogate son.  I really liked Garret- with a bit more hardship and a bit more tragedy, he could have been from a Steinbeck novel.  Silent but self sufficient and a true outdoors man.  His whirlwind relationship with Faina in the latter part though felt laboured and unrealistic.  Like the tying up of loose ends.  He died for me as a real character as soon as he laid eyes on her.  The whole premise of the novel falls down, characters and all.

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