First published: 1967 (Peter Owen paperback 2006)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “I felt a fearful sense of pressure and urgency, there was no time to lose, I was wasting time; it was a race between me and the ice. Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw a dead moon dance over icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.”
So a book I picked up at random just because of the title turns out to provide one of the most unsettling and intense reading experiences I’ve enjoyed for a long time. Ice is a work of slipstream: part sci-fi, part fantasy, part psychologically searching literary fiction – but rather than sitting neatly in any of these genres Kavan’s work breeds an atmosphere of unnerving and unspecific strangeness that is uniquely her own. The story, such as it is, concerns the terrifying coming of a new ice age: a wall of ice, of creeping death, spreading slowly but fatally across the planet. Human beings flee ahead of it towards the warmer equatorial regions, fighting as they go. Kavan darkly imagines people fighting not only, fruitlessly, against the ice, but also against each other. As food and space diminish and order collapses so humankind scrabble to stake their claims amidst the wreckage: “By making war we asserted the fact that we were alive.” Although the cause of the catastrophe is never specified and the novel deliberately shies away from realistic methods, in an era of climate change and increasing environmental tensions, its all feels worryingly contemporary.
Against this dystopian background the novel also presents a more personal, emotional struggle. Kavan’s unnamed narrator competes with a militaristic figure known only as The Warden for a fragile and sylph-like figure never called anything other than The Girl. I almost wrote “for the affections of The Girl” there, but that would be false. Ice is far more a battle to dominate than it is to romance. The Girl, we are repeatedly told, has been “forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour” and now seems incapable of individual choice. Strikingly beautiful with her glittering white hair, she is as much a possession to be fought over as the looted cars and ruined houses in the path of the ice. And she seems as ultimately doomed. The two men pursue her, battling each other and the ice through a series of unnamed environments, from Scandinavian towns to sultry – though fast cooling – jungles. It is a testament to the power of Kavan’s style – an engaging stream of consciousness that vividly and sometimes indistinguishably blends experience and imagination – that I found myself utterly caught up in the chase even though I was gravely unconvinced by the desirableness of its outcome.
I don’t believe it’s always necessary to know an author’s life story to enjoy their work, but Kavan’s biography – summarised in the edition I read in a foreword by Christopher Priest – could be a tragic and dramatic novel in its own right and in this case such facts do provide another potential way to interpret a novel that is in every way as ambiguous and as slippery as it title. Born in 1901, the author lived an active life as a world traveller, a painter, an esteemed interior decorator and property developer, even a breeder of bulldogs. But she also experienced a lonely childhood (her father killed himself before she reached her teens), two unhappy marriages, the onset of a painful spinal disease, and the death of her son in the war, after which she attempted suicide and began the first of several spells in a Swiss sanatorium. Kavan first began taking heroin when it was legally available, prescribed as a painkiller, but she soon became dependent on it and began stockpiling the drug before it was criminalised in the 1950s. Her first books were published under her married name, Helen Ferguson, but she reforged her identity as Anna Kavan, a character from one of her novels, following one of her stays in an asylum.
All of these tragic ingredients feature in the potent, disturbing mix that is Ice, the last of Kavan’s books to be published before her death. The allegory of addiction particularly invites comment; not only do the deadly ice crystals themselves recall heroin in its powdered form but the narrator’s pursuit of the Girl also mirrors patterns of addiction. He seeks her, yet never considers their fate beyond that initial reunion. Indeed sometimes when he achieves his goal, he seems almost disappointed and abandons her only to return later once more captivated by the idea of this passive ice maiden. Yet to read Ice purely as an analogy of heroin – or to subject it too rigidly to any kind of interpretative framework – is to oversimplify it and risk dulling its immersive power. It was the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard who wrote, “Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire.” The structure of Ice – an episodic road trip from Hell interspersed with dreams, memories and brutal fantasies that become increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality – make this above all, a work simply to be experienced; a nightmarish trip in its own right to return to that peskily stubborn drug analogy. The power here is in the flow, and I heartily recommend going with it. This is not a comforting bedtime duvet read but if you like your fiction more than a little unnerving, you will find Ice a haunting and uniquely memorable experience.