First Published: 2012 by Headline Review
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”
A bewitching winter’s tale that draws its inspiration from Russian folklore and from the harsh beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. Set in the 1920s the novel tells the story of Mabel and Jack, an ageing childless couple who are struggling both physically and emotionally – to survive the bleak Alaskan winter in their fledgling homestead and to come to terms with their grief for the baby they once lost. In a flight of fancy one evening the couple sculpt the figure of a girl out of snow. As they start to become aware of the ethereal presence of a child in the woods Jack and Mabel both begin hoping that the void in their lives may be fulfilled.
During the first few chapters of this book I began to worry that it was just going to preach the myth that all women need to be mothers to feel complete. If that had been the case I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but thankfully the message of The Snow Child is a lot more nuanced. Mabel is lonely: she grieves for her stillborn baby, and her flight to Alaska is partly to escape the frowns and pity that is the fate of a childless woman in “civilised” society. But the novel suggests that fulfilment is attained not necessarily through procreation so much as through understanding: Jack and Mabel need to learn to empathise with each other, to enjoy the company and support of their neighbours, and above all to adapt to the beauty and danger of the wilderness. The magical flourishes in Ivey’s fable are tempered by the harsh necessities of frontier survival. There may be whispers of fairies, dancing snowflakes and ice maidens but there are also grisly descriptions of wringing the necks of trapped game, or toiling frozen soil and eking out meagre harvests across whole hungry winters. It’s this balance of realism and romance that gives The Snow Child its emotive power. Occasionally I felt the direct sign-posting of its folk-tale roots undermined the flow of the narrative, but overall this is an engaging story and an ideal read for a cold winter evening.