The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey
Eowyn Ivey's debut The Snow Child is one of those zeitgeist books that seems to have a significant buzz about it right now. Whether this is because of great PR, reader word-of-mouth or simply that it's really that good, people seem to be talking about this book, and the burgeoning hype, along with the promise of an intriguing, magical story, grabbed my interest. When I spotted a special offer (fyi - use the code SNOWCHIL at Amazon UK to get the hardback for £5.99!), I was sold.
Beginning in 1920, this is the story of Mabel and Jack, who make the decision to move out to a homestead in Alaska relatively late in life, in their early fifties. After marrying late and suffering a stillbirth, they have never been able to have children, a source of great sorrow to Mabel in particular. The move to Alaska is meant to represent a new start, a peaceful, simple and traditional life together without interference from relatives or acquaintances. But there are problems: Jack is getting too old to work the land on his own, and is struggling to keep going; Mabel's repressed grief is magnified by her isolation; the Alaskan wilderness is lonely and unforgiving. One night, however, a fresh snowfall briefly reawakens their passion for life and each other, and they excitedly build a snow girl, even giving her a hat and mittens. The next morning, the snow girl is gone, seemingly destroyed by a wild animal - but there are tiny footprints in the snow, and Jack thinks he glimpses a child running through the forest.
The story is based on a traditional Russian tale, 'Snegurochka' (the snow maiden), and Ivey's commitment to retaining the fairytale feel really shows. This is a fully fleshed-out and detailed story, spanning a number of years and featuring a complete cast of characters - Mabel and Jack's neighbours and later friends, the Benson family, have a significant role to play in what happens - yet it never loses that sense of the otherworldly. The essence of Alaska's harsh beauty is communicated wonderfully, so that you understand how the characters can both love and hate their environment, but at the same time there's always a hint of something etheral. Is Faina, the child who becomes so precious to the couple, actually a magical being, or is there some rational explanation for her sudden appearance and apparently nomadic life in the forest? Outside the story, the idea of a snow child coming to life sounds silly, but the narrative manages to balance (often brutal) reality with suggestions of fantasy, making the plot believable even as it keeps you guessing about Faina's true origins.
The biggest problem with The Snow Child was that despite enjoying the book, I didn't get emotionally involved or feel particularly moved: tears never even pricked my eyes, even though this is technically a very emotive story. Plenty of other reviewers have fallen head-over-heels in love with this book, but as much as I think it is largely worth the hype, this just didn't happen for me. Also, I wasn't keen on the way every part of the story suggested a person's life is incomplete unless they have children. Yes, I know this is the whole idea the plot rests on, and it wouldn't really work properly without it, and it's set in more traditional times, in a part of the world where having a family was one of the only things you could hope to successfully achieve and was arguably necessary for survival... But nevertheless, I couldn't help being a bit turned off by this implication. Finally, this book contains a lot more descriptions of hunting, killing, gutting (etc) animals than you would ever guess from the whimsical title and plot. These didn't put me off reading, but I could have done without them, to be honest.
That aside, this is an enchanting story and definitely a very impressive debut. I often find first novels 'stumble' in places, but, apart from a jarring 'off of' within the first few pages, the narrative flows beautifully and the style feels very assured. The blurb describes it as an 'instant classic' and while I wouldn't quite go that far, it does have a timeless quality that I'm sure will give it enduring appeal. It will be interesting to see what Ivey does next: as an Alaskan native, it's no real surprise she has captured the setting so evocatively, but her tender depiction of the protagonists' relationship suggests this is more than a one-hit wonder. A lovely diversion from reality, and an author to keep an eye on in the future.