A childless couple, Jack and Mabal, are making a fresh start at the ‘edge of the world’ in the wilderness of 1920’s Alaska. But Jack is struggling to clear the land and Mabal is loosing herself as the days grow darker.
Then during the first snow of Winter they build a snowman, a snow girl more exactly. In the morning the snowman is gone but at the same time they start getting visits from a girl and their lives turn a corner.
The Snow Child is a strange mix. On one side it is the retelling of a Russian fairy tale and on the other it’s the story of a couple’s struggle with the wilderness. But it is a mix that works.
Eowyn Ivey’s debut is structured around the fairytale and in places it foreshadows events for the readers but rather than making it predictable it draws you deeper in. Mabal is subconsciously and then consciously aware of the parallels between real life events and there fictional counterparts. And oddly this makes it more realistic not less. You do end up wondering if Mabal and Jack projecting their wishes of having a child on the girl that visits them?
But Ivey doesn’t make this a romantic fairy tale. Life is hard for Mabal and Jack and their relationship is strained. The opening chapter sets Jack up as the problem but the more that is revealed the greyer the lines become. Mabal has her own baggage, which Jack is doing his best to deal with.
Luckily the arrival of the child Faina as well the family in the next farmstead that includes the larger than life Esther who is the complete opposite to the reserved Mabal. They do however become fast friends. And it’s the visitations of Esther and family especially her son Garrett along with Faina that help turn the farm and the relationship between Jack and Mabal around.
Tensions are still there though as Faina appears to be to Esther a fantasy that Mabal has made up to help her cope and in public Jack won’t acknowledge the child’s visits. To make matters worse the child constantly disappears when the snow recedes. The clever thing that Ivey does is play with the punctuation of speech so you’re not quite sure if the child is really speaking or if there is some sort of wish-fulfilment going on.
Ivey also plays our impression of what Faina is. Is she a child of snow or a child that’s trapping animals in the wilderness to survive? Could she be both?
There has been a lot of buzz surrounding The Snow Child. And the question that is always asked is does it live up to it? Yes absolutely but not just because it’s a fairytale. For me it’s the examination of the nuisances of the various character relationships, both main and secondary, during the stories twists and turns that kept me reading.
Ivey’s debut is truly a modern fairy tale for adults and older children alike.