The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Headline Review: paperback published 2012: 404 pages
Jack and Mabel have staked everything on making a fresh start for themselves in a homestead ‘at the world’s edge’ in the raw Alaskan wilderness. But as the days grow shorter, Jack is losing his battle to clear the land, and Mabel can no longer contain her grief for the baby she lost many years before.
The evening the first snow falls, their mood unaccountably changes. In a moment of tenderness, the two are surprised to find themselves building a snowman – or rather a snow girl – together. The next morning, all trace of her has disappeared, and Jack can;t quite shake the notion that he glimpsed a small figure – a child? – running through the spruce trees in the dawn light. And how to explain the little but very human tracks Mabel finds at the edge of their property?
Based on a Russian fairytale, this story has foundations in magic. What’s so clever about it is that you can’t tell if it really is magical, or just the imagination of Jack and Mabel, our two forlorn and aging heroes. It’s a slow storyline, that takes you through the unfolding plot with a gentleness reminiscent of those dreamlike fairytales it’s based on. Is there a moral to the story? No. And that’s where it differs from its magical origins – there is no moral, no meaning to the story. It’s real, and it’s unforgiving, like the ethereal Alaska we find ourselves in. Everything is glittering frost and thick snow, and it’s beautiful and brutal at the same time.
I sort of liked this book, despite its slow pace and not an awful lot happening. I really loved Mabel, and waited with bated breath for the next visit from Faina. I struggled with the relationships between the characters apart from Faina and Mabel – it was so fragile that you had to look at it out of the corner of your eye – as sometimes the other relationships felt stilted and staged. Though I didn’t cry at the heartbreaking bits (I haven’t cried at a book since The Go-Away Bird) I recognised where each emotion was needed and felt it to some degree (always a good sign I feel).
As a recommendation, I’m pleased to find that I did like the book, and I did recommend it to others. However, as riveted as I was when reading the story, I’m already finding I’m forgetting bits. It’s not a story that lingers. Perhaps it’s because you can guess the ending, perhaps because it’s so slow. I’m pleased that it’s not another fast-paced loop-the-loop of a book that leaves you dazed and confused and lying awake, because that’s the last thing I needed. This is more Teacups than Rollercoaster. You can tuck your feet under you, curl your hands around a steaming mug of tea, and settle yourself in with the knowledge that you’re not going to be shocked or disturbed by anything in the story.
I wish they had played more on the fact that Mabel and Jack lost a child – it felt like it was slotted in at random intervals to remind you, but it was never directly addressed. So much more could have been done around the back story. However, Faina as a character was astounding – the right amount of wildness and childlike curiosity wrapped up in a sad maturity from growing up too fast. It was a perfectly-pitched, elegant little girl that we met, and she stayed and grew throughout. That’s why I think she worked so well with Mabel, who was so emotionally fragile that Faina’s strange strength was something to cling to, and Mabel’s vulnerability was something Faina could recognise.
The book finishes with the fairytale it was inspired by, and I definitely recommend you read it straight after you’ve finished the book. It reveals more about the plot than just going with the book, and it simply serves to emphasise the magical nature of the story.
Next book: I gave up on Guerillas, and I gave up on The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, and settled myself in for a simpler ride with Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – the third and final book in her Hunger Games trilogy.