The Snow Child

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.

Red Fox by John Luke

“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.

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36 thoughts on “The Snow Child

  1. I just bought this book today. No kidding! So, you know, I should probably get on with reading it.
    Great review. Have you read ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison? Would it be fare to say that that ghost-that’s-not-a-ghost is similar here?

    Also, anyone with a name like Eowyn was always going to be become a writer, right?
    Tomcat.

    • I’ll leave that comparison for you to make Tomcat when you review the book, looking forward to getting your insightful perspective. This one will be a breeze for you, compared to the challenges you have recently set yourself.

      Enjoy!

  2. Thanks for the review. I have seen the novel in our book shops, although it has a different cover here. Now I shall buy it (or persuade my book club to).

    Nella

  3. Interesting – thanks for this, Claire! I’ve been hearing The Snow Child mentioned frequently, but this is the first I’ve learned more about the story. Sounds lovely.. I’ll add it to my boat reading list!

    • I was wondering if you may have read/heard of it, given it is in your beautiful part of the world. I’ve fallen in love with the Alaska wilderness from afar, though not sure I could cope with those long winters she describes – unless I had something of the ‘snow girl’ in me. I do hope you read it and let us know what you think, from a local perspective.

  4. I’m so drawn to lyrical writing . . . to the point where I sometimes lose my patience with books that lack what I can only call that quality of ‘voice.’ It’s so clear, based on the passages you’ve quoted, that this book shines with ‘voice.’ I might even ‘redirect,’ by way of appreciation, something you wrote about my latest blog post: getting caught up in exquisite language has the effect of making ‘time seem to stand still.’ Sounds like a must read for me.

    • I’m still trying to understand what exactly it is I am drawn to, definitely a voice, but combined with certain other elements, that lead us and yet leave something to the imagination of the reader or which spark memories of one’s own experience.

      Perhaps not knowing exactly what it is, is a good thing, because then one can always be pleasantly surprised when a book delivers it.

      And then the magic of being able to write like that, I’m not sure if that is practice or nature, perception, it is surely talent and a gift.

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    • Those are some of the best, the books we haven’t quite got to, but just know we are going to love. When the poet Sheighle Birdthistle listened to me talk about what I love in a book and then said “You must read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer” I couldn’t believe I’d had it all these years and never realised what a gem it was. I hope you will enjoy The Snow Child, it may not have won the prizes, but I think it is just stunning and as a writer, she is pure inspiration.

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  13. Claire – I read The Snow Child this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. The writing was lovely, but even more than that, I loved the mystery of the story. It’s a fantasy but it’s also a traditional folk tale. The author did a lovely job blending the two. My book club chose it as the selection for this month, and I’m looking forward to the discussion. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Thanks for coming by and letting me know Amy, for me, nothing has yet surpassed the perfection of The Snow Child since I read it and I know it will remain an all time favourite, that hint of magic realism without it being complete fantasy is something I realise that I really love in a book, perhaps the idea that there is indeed a little bit of magic in every day life and especially within the pages of books.

      She has a new book coming out hopefully in 2014 called something like Shadow of the Wolverine and I can’t wait to read it, though inevitably she has set the bar so high that it will be difficult to not make comparisons.

      The reference to an ancient folktale can work really well and I have my eye on Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife for that reason, his first adult book.

      I hope your manuscript isn’t gathering dust Amy! :)

  14. Claire, just had to thank you for making this recommendation. I closed the cover on the last page this afternoon, hardly noticing the complaints from my family that dinner hadn’t even been started! :) An almost perfect book, superbly written, as if the author had held each word, each image, looslely connected to a diaphanous thread, giving her impeccable control over every aspect of her tale, from story telling to structure. The ultimate un-putdownable novel! Even choosing who to loan it to for reading next feels like an impossible decision to make!
    Any suggestions on what to follow this novel with? I wait your reply with bated breath! :)

    • Oh Edith, thank you so much for coming over to share your joy with such beautiful words. I am afraid The Snow Child is the pinnacle for me and I don’t think I have given 5 stars for a novel since reading it. I await her next book Shadow of the Wolverine which I think will be out in 2014.

      For me, it is a stand alone book and I would probably recommend that you read something completely different, like the non-fiction essays of Kathleen Jamie in Sightlines or Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book, so as not to feel compelled to make comparisons.

      Or failing that you may just have to reread it. :)

      • Funny that you should mention non-fiction as I just started reading ‘The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction’, edited by Dinty Moore – fascinating reading. I loved ‘The Rose Metal Guide to Prose Poetry’ as well. So, on your advice, I shall order Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Sightlines’. I have heard mention of this title elsewhere and meant to pick it up then, but somehow the title slipped my mind. Thanks for the reminder! :) Love and hugs xox

  15. Brilliant review, Claire! I want tor read ‘The Snow Child’ now! I totally love the author’s name :) I loved this sentence from your review – “the promise of picturesque phrases that almost make music as they fly off the page like dancing quavers to craft pictures in my mind” – so beautiful!

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