There’s a wonderful ongoing trend among adult novels and that is to evoke childhood and imagination by creating stories that recreate the sense of a fairytale. The Night Circus achieved this last year by creating a hypnotic and dreamlike world for readers to explore and live within. We aren’t even a week into 2012 and I have been utterly gobsmacked by what I can only call an adult fairytale of longing and love.
Eowyn Ivey was inspired to write The Snow Child after discovering The Snow Maiden – the original Russian fairytale. After studying the original, Ivey was ready to bring Faina, the titular snow child, to life.
It’s Alaska in 1920 as we find Jack and Mabel, a married couple drifting apart in the brutal wilderness as Jack works like a madman to raise money and Mabel sits in the desolate cabin surrounded by her loneliness. They don’t have a child to bring them together and this fact hangs over their existence. In a moment of frivolous joy one night, Jack and Mabel come together to make a snowman, which swiftly becomes a snow girl. The next morning the snow girl has vanished and suddenly both Jack and Mabel are starting to see a small blonde haired girl running through the woods accompanied by a red fox.
After a time the couple begin to talk to the girl, named Faina and start to think of her as their family, a daughter, perhaps. However, Mabel has also read the original Russian fairytale and she knows the ending of the story and fears for their now happy world.
What gives The Snow Child such an edge is the depiction of the Alaskan wilderness. It really heightens the bleakness of the couple’s relationship and their want for a peaceful and happy life. All they wanted was to explore and break land in Alaska, to achieve something. They are, perhaps foolishly, filling a void trying to tame the environment.
This is reflected in Faina’s character as she arrives in their lives. At first not speaking and then slowly coming around. It’s akin to holding out food for a wild animal in the hope to tame it and spend a few minutes with a beautiful part of nature. Faina represents that wild nature as she skips over the surface of snow, kills wild animals with ease and knows her way through acres of woods without pause.
The Snow Child is a wonderful story with morals running through, much like a traditional fairytale would. We, as readers and of course external to the narrative, look on as Jack and Mabel live their lives, tend the farm, meet new friends and grow closer than ever. But is it really Faina that has done this? Did she make the crops plentiful? Did she bring the wonderful neighbours Esther and George into their lives?
It’s in these neighbours that the story bubbles with joy as Mabel grabs her confidence in the emboldened Esther, who has to be my favourite character. She is the all knowing- lived through it all- could tell you a story, kind of woman and each time she appears the story buzzes, much like their cluttered and overflowing homestead. Each character is excellently realised and fleshed out.
Eowyn Ivey is a supreme talent and must be praised for every word she puts on the page. She has a way of making your moods lift and fall with the prose and situation. When Jack and Mabel go ice skating on a river with Faina I began grinning madly and felt a rush of pride for these humble characters. However, later in the story as Mabel worries if Faina will stay with them and be a family, that happiness crumbles. Her depictions of Alaska are incredibly engrossing, which is understandable as she is describing her own surroundings.
There really isn’t a low point in the novel. It’s never going to be a book that barrels along at a breakneck pace, it’s a brooding piece of fiction that uses each page to set a scene, depict a moment and above all tell a lovely story. There isn’t a wasted word.
Sometimes it’s hard to write about such books and not just gush incoherently about it. If that’s what I’ve done here I can only apologise. I have forever been a fan of fairytales, having re-read Grimms Fairytales repeatedly for years. I would happily shelve this book next to those and hold it in the same regard. This is becoming a much hyped debut and rightfully so. If this is what Eowyn Ivey can do with her first attempt, I can only imagine what comes next.