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.
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.