Thursday, 10 May 2012

Once Upon A Time...

As someone who counts The Snow Queen amongst her favourite fairy tales and recommends The Red Shoes as a film choice (if you haven’t already seen it, check it out - Moira Shearer’s stellar ballet performance alone makes it worth your while), it should come as no great surprise that I anticipated the debut of Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child eagerly.  (There’s an excerpt courtesy of a link via the author’s website for the curious).

Essentially, The Snow Child is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, or the The Little Daughter of the Snow (reproduced at the conclusion of the novel and citing Arthur Ransome’s version as the inspiration for the eventual novel).  In Ivey’s version, Mabel and Jack, a childless couple, move to Alaska to start a new life together in the wilderness.  They have been prompted to do so by their prior heartbreak and familial expectations and, thus, seek a life far from society and the pressures this has placed upon them. 

Life in Alaska, however, has its own demands and the climate is harsh.  Initially, they struggle to adjust to the dark, cold winters and feel themselves growing apart as a married couple.  Some impulse, however, prompts them to create the “snow child” of the title, which they gift with mittens and a hat and upon which Jack carves eyes, a nose and “small, white lips”.  Mabel even imagines she can “see cheekbones and a little chin”.
In the morning, there is only a small heap of snow in place of the girl they have built, despite Jack’s sleep deprived brain thinking it catches a glimpse of a small figure running towards the edge of the forest and disappearing into the trees.
The bleak surroundings of the Alaskan wilderness contrast nicely with the hope and love prompted by the arrival of Faina, the semi-feral snow child seemingly created by Mabel and Jack within their moment of impulse.  Similarly, significant effort is expended in ensuring the reader is provided with a loving amount of detail related to the landscape itself and this is well spent.  As with the characters, we are transported to an alien habitat, with all of its perils and pleasures in its unfamiliarity.  This means the pace of the narrative is measured but, for me, did not mean it became laboured at any stage.

Whilst Ivey dips in and out of using quotation marks, this coincides with the occasions upon which Faina is or is not present, seemingly adding to the reality or unreality of her existence.  Again, it therefore adds, as opposed to detracts from the narrative.

Ultimately, Ivey keeps her audience guessing up until the last minute as to whether or not Faina is a creature of flesh and bone or simply a being “spirited” into existence by the wishes of the previously childless Mabel and Jack and is no less powerful for doing so.  This is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the fairy tale from which the novel stems.  For those seeking a narrative which blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, this may prove to be a place to start the search.

Alternative Reads:

In keeping with this, I also have Ali Shaw’s Desmond Elliott Prize winning The Girl With The Glass Feet on my “to-read” list currently, in addition to Mathias Malzieu's The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart.

Those looking for yet further additional reading material might also like to give Frances Gordon's reworking of Rumpelstiltkin, Changeling a look.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Selected Shorts

I’m always interested in short stories, whether singularly or produced as part of a collection or anthology – possibly because I’ve seen numerous references to the suggestion that this is a “dying” art form.  (Stephen King, for one, is an author who fights against this suggestion and, incidentally, looks towards artistic expression in e-format, serialisation; pretty much anything if it gets the words onto paper.  If you haven’t taken a look already, do yourself a favour and look out at least one of his short story collections.  If you’re not a horror fan, why not plump for Different Seasons and read – or even re-read - his novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, amongst others?)

This is just a prĂ©cis of some of my recent reads – and, in a couple of cases re-reads, which would be worth taking a look at.

Stories (Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio was a compilation I originally picked up a copy of for Gaiman’s novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains and Joe Hill's The Devil on the Staircase (both of which are well worth the time expended in a read of).
It was also my introduction to Kat Howard's work, being the volume which contained her first published short story, A Life in Fictions, the tale of a girl who is, quite literally, written into a story by her boyfriend.  Since then I’ve looked up copies of further shorts published by Howard and never yet been disappointed by having done so.  I’d heartedly recommend her Beauty and Disappearance  published in Weird Tales 356 but a number of her short stories have also been published online, such as Choose Your Own Adventure and The Least of the Deathly Arts.

Speaking of Joe Hill, 20th Century Ghosts also deserves a shout out.  Hill is often coupled with the phrase “son of Stephen King” in write ups but is more than capable of holding his own against the legacy of his father’s writing, on the basis of my reading to date.  Whilst this collection of short stories is predominantly horror based, some of the entries fall outside of this category, such as Pop Art, the story of an inflatable boy or Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead, which simply takes place on the set of a making of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  (Incidentally, if you’re a UK reader, there’s a short film of Pop Art available via the BBC website here, courtesy of Amanda Boyle).

I’ve also looked up a number of Karen Joy Fowler's short stories this year, within her collections, Black Glass and What I Didn’t See.  I particularly enjoyed The Pelican Bar in her 2010 collection (What I Didn’t See), in which Norah is sent to a boarding school with a difference.  To say much more would spoil the impact of the story, so I’d suggest looking it up yourself to get the full effect.

Margo Lanagan is something of an acquired taste for some but her short story collection Black Juice contains the excellent Singing My Sister Down, which was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best short story.  It documents the tale of a young boy watching his sister being executed by way of a tar pit for the murder of her husband.