The Snow Child opens with absence, rawness and regret.
Mabel and Jack have moved to Alaska to start again. Ten years earlier, Mabel had given birth to a stillborn child, and her desolation colours everything. “She cooked and cleaned, and cooked and cleaned, and found herself further consumed by the gray, until even her vision was muted and the world around her drained of colour.”
The story has a devastating beauty. Mabel and Jack are emotionally and physically disconnected, and their life is drawn with haunting resignation. Unexpressed feelings lie dangerously near the surface, and even casual exchanges are burdened.
Into this landscape falls the snow. Its presence transforms not just their surroundings but Jack and Mabel’s lives.
In a rare moment of connection, they make a snow child. They dress her in real mittens and a scarf, and give her wild yellow hair made from grass. But when they wake the next morning, their snow child has disappeared. In its place is a trail of footprints leading off into the forest, and Jack is sure he saw a small girl running through the trees. He is tired and the vision is fleeting, but he is certain that she had blonde hair and was dressed in the red scarf and mittens they had given her.
Eowyn Ivey has an extraordinary gift for language. The writing in the first part of this book is astonishing, at once enchanting, evocative and unearthly. The tale of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden is woven through this story, and the balance between magic and reality is never clear.
The relationship between Mabel and Jack is beautifully told. In any marriage there are misunderstandings, but the honesty of Jack and Mabel’s struggles is so searing it is at times painful to witness.
Through the gift of the snow child, and their very different ideas about what she is, they find a way forward. They are helped in this by their friendship with George Benson (a name I found briefly distracting) and his wonderful wife Esther. To say that everyone should have an Esther in life is an understatement. She is a force of nature, and her chaotic charm is glorious.
The story is not without its flaws, however. Although the myth of the snow child is built exquisitely, in the later parts of the book it takes an unexpected direction and I was left with the feeling that its potential had not been fully resolved. That said, this an extremely accomplished work for a debut novelist and Eowyn Ivey has all the makings of a wonderful writer. Headline imprint Tinder Press has already acquired a second novel. One to watch.