Days will be merry and bright if each Christmas is white.
Publisher: Headline Review
First Published: 1st February 2012
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2011
Mabel and Jack moved to Alaska when Mabel suggested they could do with a new life. Having lost their child at birth, Mabel has never quite recovered and the solitary life of 1918 Alaska appealed to her greatly. A gulf is between the couple and Jack cannot understand how Mabel is still so affected. During their struggle to make it in Alaska they create a snow girl; the next day they see a child in the woods. Their world is suddenly filled with a happiness they never dreamed of but there is always the question of how long it will last.
The Snow Child is a sweeping story, encompassing many questions about how we connect with and treat each other. The setting allows the magic to be explored in a way that most anyone can identify with, while allowing Alaska to keep its reality, the author herself being from the state. Although the location never changes, the ride through the character’s lives can often make it feel as though you have been on a long journey. Though of course that is in many ways the point.
Albeit that The Snow Child rests firmly in what is termed “magical realism”, Ivey plays with her reader, coming back and forth with the idea that in fact everything is perfectly true, before throwing at them a snowball filled with thoughts to the contrary. Before the girl, Faina, entered their lives, Mabel and Jack’s relationship was uneasy at best. Faina’s entrance is the catalyst by which everything starts to change, because suddenly there is a child for them to look after, the gulf between them bridged.
And it is through Faina that Ivey shows us change over time. Jack was always more content with life than Mabel was, but the introduction of the girl causes him to move towards a feeling of fatherhood, one that is rather possessive. Mabel, on the other hand, sort of takes a reverse route, beginning by feeling desolate and depressed and ending as Jack begun, more accepting and open. In addition to this, the reader can see a parallel in the personalities and life of the couple’s neighbours, who come to feature strongly in the book.
Possession is a big theme of the book, with Jack and Mabel taking turns at being worried for Faina and wanting her to fit the mould of a child they have created in their minds. Ivey puts forward the idea that Faina might disappear if Mabel enforces her views of education and a stable home life, suggesting that one cannot direct the life of another, as Mabel cannot force a child of nature to be a child of the modern western world. As for Jack, his possessiveness comes to the fore when Faina makes strong choices of her own, choices that bring her properly into their world. Ivey demonstrates that while such possessiveness, especially on Mabel’s part, is due both to the sudden realisation that they have a child, and to the love they have for Faina, it can do untold damage where it is not held in check.
But the bigger theme is relationships. It takes Faina’s arrival for Mabel and Jack to remember who they were, both as individuals and as a couple, and there is a poignant moment when all three are skating on ice and Faina suggests they keep skating past the limits they had set themselves for safety. In this there is the idea that while they are happy, Jack and Mabel will not let themselves fly free, always remaining on solid ground, and Ivey demonstrates that while that is often seen as a good thing, there are times when one should let themselves go. And the reader is left to wonder what might have happened had Mabel and Jack agreed with Faina, and had literally skated past their boundaries.
What is interesting about The Snow Child is that for so long it is simply a nice story – a look at domestic relations – with only the smallest of magical pieces, and the reader may wonder what is happening in the sense that it can seem that nothing much is. The change in mood, pace, and magic comes swiftly – Ivey sets the major points in a section all on their own, and it’s rather like a latch being opened. From content and comfortable little story the book moves to extreme emotions and a much grander tale, from which there is no way back. Perhaps the most intriguing thing is that from this point it is likely the reader will be able to discern what will happen, and far from being a negative aspect, as it would be in other books, this is what propels you on. Like Mabel and Jack, you may have been happy enough with Faina coming and going before, but now you want to truly put her in the spotlight and find out who she is. Again, Ivey shows us that wanting all the knowledge may be part of the problem.
The choices Faina makes, and how she relates to the changes are pause for thought, as they illustrate both how human and, at the same time, how unreal, she is. And surely the final catalyst in her life is a nail in the coffin of the current flow of events and way of life. It is here that another theme, love, is shown most obviously. However it is up to the reader to decide whom exactly Faina loves, or indeed, if she does love or whether it is something else entirely that effects her actions.
But in doing what she does, Faina provides Mabel and Jack with what they always wanted and in that sense the story comes full circle. Who Faina is, was, and will be, why she came, if she had a purpose or if that is something we have come to believe, are all questions that Ivey leaves to the imagination. Ivey will control your thoughts throughout the novel – pushing you towards the realistic, the magical, the deluded, whenever she wants – but the questions themselves go unanswered. The lack of quotation marks during dialogue that includes Faina is cause itself to take a step back. Each reader will come to their own conclusion based on experience, beliefs, desires, and this brings a spiritual aspect to the book.
And that is what makes the book so compelling, and Ivey’s tale so wonderful, that while it is based on a fairytale that was given an explanation, Ivey has twisted it and drawn her own ending, inserting important musings along the way.
Ivey shows that while we may like to think that we can solve problems by rational thinking and talking things through, there is an element in all of us that benefits from the unknown and the magical, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. And she shows that maybe what we think we need isn’t it exactly.
The Snow Child is a brilliantly crafted story of learning to live and love. And the best news is that no matter whether winter or summer, real or not, it will always be around to delight and enthral.
I received this book for review from Waterstones.
February 27, 2012, 2:29 pm
I loved this book too! I think this is going to be near the top of most peoples “best of 2012 lists” and its universal appeal means I think it has a strong chance with the Orange prize. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it. :-)
Charlie: I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I’m ignorant when it comes to the Orange Prize, but it would be exciting if it won awards. Ivey is one to watch and to see this book recognised by awards would be fantastic.