The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey
This sort-of fantasy story, from an author with possibly the most fantasy-authorish name ever, begins in the wilderness of Alaska in 1920, where old couple Jack and Mabel are trying to set up a homestead. Both of them are depressed with how things are turning out; Jack is struggling to get the homestead going and Mabel is still scarred by a stillbirth several years earlier. As winter begins to set in, they forget their troubles for a while by building a girl out of snow. But next morning, the snow girl has disappeared, and before long, they begin to see a very real girl hanging around their home…
Easily the best thing about this book is the setting and the atmosphere. Ivey uses her prose very well to make you feel like you’re right there in isolated Alaska, right down to the cold. The setting often reflects the moods of the characters; it’s all dark, grey and harsh as we start out, but the beauty of the landscape becomes more evident as Jack and Mabel become happier. Ivey also succeeds in making you empathise with her main characters, wanting them to succeed and be happy in these difficult circumstances.
The story as a whole, however, largely feels quite simplistic. The first act establishes the appearance of the snow child, Faina, and how her relationship with Jack and Mabel begins to develop. The second act…well, it would be wrong to say that it drags, as it’s still very readable thanks to the quality of the prose; but not a lot of things that have very important consequences occur in this section. It feels more like an establishment of a routine, as the third act suddenly skips forward a number of years and the pacing really accelerates from there. Without spoiling anything, it’s in the third act that the biggest changes and the most interesting events occur, and I wish more space had been devoted to this period. Ivey’s prose works very well again here, as you get this sad feeling of foreboding even though perfectly happy things seem to be happening. The emotional payoff of the ending doesn’t disappoint.
I was, however, somewhat dissatisfied by the ending in other ways. Throughout the story, Faina’s true nature is quite ambiguous: is she a snow child come to life, or is she in fact an ordinary human girl? There are various clues that point in both directions. Adding an extra layer to this is the fact that the story is inspired by a Russian fairy tale which actually exists within the story itself, and Mabel makes an effort to prevent the more negative aspects of it from coming true. By the time the third act was drawing to a close, I thought I did understand Faina, but the ending caught me off guard and confused me. It’s just a personal thing, really; I prefer having clear ideas of things. It can also be difficult to grasp Faina’s personality and motivations, given that we never see directly inside her head and her behaviour is usually quite mysterious, but I was able to get my own idea of that and it wasn’t contradicted by the end.
The Snow Child is a story with beautiful construction but could have used a bit more substance – a pleasant read overall. Rating: 3.5/5.