Who hasn't heard of Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child? It arrived in the UK with much fanfare upon publication early last year, and if you care to look at the reviews on Amazon, there's more than 550, most of which sing its praises.
Set in snowy Alaska
The story, which is set in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 20th century, revolves around Jack and Mabel, a married couple who are unable to have children. They are now in their forties and have decided to start their life afresh in a remote homestead cut off from family and friends.
But in the opening pages of this novel, all is not well: Mabel is depressed enough to want to take her own life, and it is only by sheer luck that her plan to drown herself in the frozen river does not come to fruition. Meanwhile, Jack is working all the hours god sends to try and farm the land, but with limited success. The pair are rarely communicating and its clear their marriage is on the rocks.
Then something truly magical happens. In an unexpectedly carefree moment, they build a snowman designed to look like a little girl, and dress it up with a scarf and mittens. But in the morning the scarf and mittens are gone, the snowman is partly melted and there are fresh child-sized footprints in the snow. Later they see a little girl running through the forest...
Based on a Russian fairy tale
The Snow Child is partly based on a Russian fairy tale — The Snow Maiden — in which a child made from snow comes alive. In Ivey's novel, Mabel knows this story well and wonders if their little snowman has turned into the child they could not have.
Eventually, Jack and Mabel meet the child and develop a strong bond with her. But she only ever appears in winter and no one nearby, including their neighbours, ever sees the girl. Is she merely a product of Jack and Mabel's imagination? Or does she really exist but only makes herself known to the people she trusts?
Because of this dilemma, the first half of the novel is truly lovely and magical. The reader can easily suspend belief and accept that the snow child exists as a living, breathing creature made from snow. But certain events and "twists" in the story detract from that initial "magic realism" and I must admit that the wonder of this book ceased for me and it merely became a story about pioneers in the snowy wilderness.
However, as a portrait of a marriage, The Snow Child is an exceptional one. The love between Jack and Mabel, how it waxes and wanes over time, how they work together to survive harsh climatic conditions and other unforeseen events, is beautifully depicted. And their growing friendship with their nearest neighbours adds extra warmth — and much wit — to the story.
My problem with this book lies in the fact that the storyline is too slight to sustain more than 400 pages. I soon grew bored with it, and felt much of it predictable and cliched. Yet Ivey can clearly write and her strength as a storyteller shouldn't be underestimated.
I loved her characters, though the women were definitely more fleshed out than the men, and felt compelled to discover what happened to them. And her depiction of the Alaskan wilderness is so vivid and strong, particularly during the winter, that it becomes a character in its own right.
As a story about heartbreak and hope with a strong fairy-tale element to it, The Snow Child is a lovely and evocative one. It is perfect reading material for those times when you need something light. But if you are looking for something truly magical that covers similar territory, I highly recommend Touch by Alexi Zentner, which was long-listed for the Giller Prize in 2011 and deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have attained.
This book was chosen by Anna for our Riverside Readers book group. Most people loved the book and several awarded it 10 out of 10.