The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

22 February, 2013

Snow Child

That’s what my name means, Faina said, still pointing.
No. That light. Papa named me for the color on the snow when the sun turns.
Alpenglow, Mabel said.

I probably wouldn’t have read this book for some time if it wasn’t my book group read last month. It’s had some wonderful reviews and I know it’s quickly become a favourite of so many of you out there. But the hype. It was just too much for me. So I was thinking I’d wait awhile. But I’m really glad I didn’t because it is simply enchanting.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey has as its kernel the Russian fairytale Snegurochka, about an old childless couple, lonely for love, who conjure a child made from snow. It’s a tale that’s probably been told in every cold country. I certainly know of a similar Japanese folk tale. And what Ivey has done is to spin her own tale, set in 1920s Alaska and people it with Mabel and Jack, their friends Esther and George and their son Garrett, and most importantly, Faina, the flaxen, fey girl who turns up one blizzard day in their lonely lives.

Having relocated to Alaska after a tragic loss, Mabel and Jack are struggling to make their farm work, the loneliness and poverty slowly eating into their relationship. But a chance creation of a little snowman one wintry night conjures up a little girl and transforms their life.

I was prepared to be sceptical but within a few pages, Ivey won me over. Her prose is assured and calm and evokes the bitter winters and the fleeting summers of Alaska, a harsh, rugged and lonely land. Not only do you fall in love with all her characters, but you feel a little crush of sadness that you will be leaving the stark landscape so lovingly rendered. It’s hard to believe this is her debut novel. I loved everything about it, from the descriptions of farming, the solitude, the poverty. And most of all, I loved her characters; Mabel and Jack’s relationship, often difficult, but of a deep, deep love, Esther and George’s boisterous family, Garret growing into manhood and Faina’s mystery.

The Snow Child is like a fairytale and yet it isn’t. I don’t know whether Ivey cares how people take this. I liked that there was some mystery to the tale and that it wasn’t over explained. There’s a melancholy and stillness to the world she has created and I loved every beautiful word of it. But to sustain a full novel, you need tension, and there’s plenty of it. We first meet Mabel as she contemplates drowning herself in a frozen river. We feel for Mable and Jack’s loss. And we worry about Faina. There’s an underlying darkness and coldness that matches the terrain spiked with sudden, unexpected bursts of love and warmth. Wonderful.

It’s a triumph and I’m glad I didn’t wait so long to read this. And I’ll be looking forward to her next novel.

Do also check out Kim’s review of The Snow Child.