I recognise in the first two paragraphs the allure of melodic sentences, the promise of picturesque phrases that almost make music as they fly off the page like dancing quavers to craft pictures in my mind of that breath-taking, wild and unforgiving Alaskan landscape.
“Mabel had known there would be silence.”
“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found.”
Nature’s beauty and harshness leave me in a perpetual state of wonder with an undercurrent of fear and Eowyn Ivey doesn’t waste any time bringing both these sensations to the reader. A walk across the ice river bristles with tension and though I am sure Mabel will be safe, this is only the first chapter after all, I have to pause momentarily and put the book kindle down, my heart racing as I hear imagine that ominous crack.
Mabel and Jack have left the tame pastures of Pennsylvania and the close-knit support of their child filled families to try and make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness. The daughter of a literature professor, from a family of privilege, Mabel is finding her own self-imposed exile and the never-ending grief of a stillborn child that rendered them childless, almost too much to bear.
“We needed to do things for ourselves. Does that make any sense? To break your own ground and know it’s yours free and clear.”
“Here at the world’s edge, far from everything familiar and safe, they would build a new home in the wilderness and do it as partners, out from the shadow of cultivated orchards and expectant generations.”
On a day when Mabel, a believer who often set fairy traps as a child, was near her lowest, she and her husband Jack build a beautiful snow girl from the first winter snow, lovingly sculpted with childlike features and dressed with a blue scarf and red mittens.
“Such delicate features, formed by his calloused hands, a glimpse at his longing.”
Wakened by the cold, Jack catches a glimpse of something passing through the trees on the edge of the forest, a glimpse of a blue scarf and long blond hair flying behind it, disappearing into the trees.
The next morning the snow child has been reduced to a pile of melting snow, the mittens and scarf are gone; footprints lead from the remnant of their powdery infant, across the yard into the trees.
This is no ghost story, but I couldn’t help but make comparisons with my recent read of Susan Hill’s ‘A Woman in Black’, another character who may or may not have been real, in this story there is a genuine intrigue that carries you through some of most beautiful passages of writing both in the depiction of characters and what they experience, as well as the incredible wilderness within which they live, as we try to grasp what she is, this child of the snow.
“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy red tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eyes.”
For me this story is an exquisite depiction of humanity living alongside nature and the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the seasons, trying to make progress, the necessity of humanity respecting nature and understanding the nature of fellow human beings. When we cease paying attention to either, suffering will undoubtedly follow.
A magical story that unfolds like an extraordinary dream; a unique blend of the inescapable reality of life in the wilderness, beside the quiet affirming beauty of believing in the imagination and visualising life into being.
Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.