Published by Little, Brown and Company on February 1st 2012
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel is one that I find very hard to describe. Upon finishing it, I had to sit and simply think about it for a while, which wound up being a rather fruitless attempt to put my emotions into something resembling cohesion. Even now, I am incredibly conflicted, and this review is going to be a short one as a consequence. The Snow Child is simply one of those books that really cannot be adequately captured in words that come from someone other than the author, I think, and any attempt to do so too extensively will kill the magic that is imbued within it.
I will, however, do my best to give you some idea of what this book is like.
Ivey’s fairy tale is a hushed and unassuming one, quietly working its charms until you realize, all at once, that you’ve come to care about the characters and their simple lives. And this is what truly makes the novel special: the characters. They simply feel wholly, truly real, faults and all. Their day-to-day activities are neither particularly unique nor exciting (not including Faina, of course), and yet their smallest triumphs suddenly become the most important of victories, and you find yourself smiling when Jack and Mable find any sort of happiness in the bleak and chilly landscape that they have isolated themselves in. Their relationship is one of the most convincing and touching ones that I have read, and being able to witness their gradual reconciliation is so, so rewarding.
That isn’t to say, of course, that the rest of the cast doesn’t work well. They do. For the most part, however, they are there to function as a catalyst for the primary pair’s evolution and to set the stage for the second half of the story. Faina, as the titular child, is especially important to the rekindling of Jack and Mable’s love, and flits around the edges of the tale in its initial stages to give it just a hint of the supernatural. What is she, precisely? Where does she come from? These questions are never really answered, though Ivey leaves plenty at the reader’s disposal to allow them to draw their own conclusions. This lack of definitive information works in the character’s favor, as it lends her an air of mystery and the wild unknown, which meshes perfectly with the rustic setting and absolutely lovely imagery that is painted with the author’s words.
Oh, and what words they are! Ivey is undoubtedly a gifted writer, her talent shown clearly in the poetry that fills her descriptions as she creates a world of quiet snow and frozen beauty. Her scenes are vivid and powerful, easy to slip into and lose oneself in. While the constant talk of ice and trees gets a bit tiresome at times, and can at points be too unnecessarily dramatic to be entirely effective, Ivey nonetheless shows an appreciable degree of restraint in her verse, tiptoeing the line between “not enough” and “too much” with relative ease. Considering that this is her debut, this lack of any real weaknesses speaks volumes about her abilities as an author.
I’ve put off talking about the story until last, and for an important reason. As mentioned, the characters are what truly shine in The Snow Child, and this fact ultimately makes the plot’s shortcomings easy to overlook. They are, however, still there, and so worth mentioning at least briefly. Despite being a relatively minor issue, the fact that the pace drags slightly at times is important to consider, though Ivey blessedly keeps these moments of lethargy brief and infrequent. Most important is the rather discomfiting time shift that occurs about halfway through the novel, which essentially brings to a close the events up until that point while simultaneously introducing a new narrative thread, one that is the primary focus for the rest of the tale. To be honest, I preferred the first half, if only because the romance that is introduced in the second is one that feels a tad too rushed, and generally hard to accept as an authentic and genuine one.
All is forgiven, however, thanks to the end, which is bittersweet and powerful, if not somewhat predictable. A perfect balance of tragedy and hope, it wraps everything up in a perfectly satisfying way, and is so emotional that it will likely be several days before you can come to grips with it.
The Snow Child does not tell the most exciting of stories, and many will probably find it to be too slow for their tastes. Those who do not mind such books, however, will want to pick this up immediately. It’s beautiful, tragic, passionate, and very, very moving. The trip is worth every shiver and tear, I promise you.