Book review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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Draw the curtains, throw a log on the fire and cosy up with one of the most bewitching books likely to come your way this year.

So what it’s all about, the debut novel that has been causing a buzz in publishing circles long before it hit the shelves this week?

Is it a romance, a historical novel, a fairytale pastiche, an atmospheric journey into the wintry wonderland that is Alaska or a deeply moving story about a couple’s longing for a child?

Amazingly, The Snow Child is all of these and more ... a tale of pure magic which touches the parts that many other books fail to reach; a timeless and exquisitely crafted tale of love and loss, of harsh climates, harsh truths and the spirit of human endurance.

Less of a surprise is that it comes from the pen of an author who lives amidst Alaska’s snowy wilderness and who was rather romantically named after a character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

In the pages of her book you’ll find hope, heartbreak, compromise, mystery, ethereal beauty, raw power and enough snow-covered mountains, frozen rivers, swirling snowflakes and icy tracks to make you reach for a survival suit.

And survival is one of the resonant themes in a story inspired by a Russian fairytale, The Snow Maiden, but which Ivey uses here as the springboard to introduce new themes like the power of nature, childlessness, parenthood and loneliness.

Set in Alaska in the 1920s, we meet Jack and Mabel who are approaching their 50s and have staked all on making a new home ‘at the world’s edge’ in the raw Alaskan wilderness.

The move was motivated more by Mabel’s desolation at the birth of a stillborn baby some years ago and her subsequent inability to have a child rather than a real desire to test out Jack’s old dream of carving out a living in such a wild and grand place.

She had imagined them far away from the sound of children ‘playfully hollering’ and ‘all those sounds of her failure’ and instead working happily together in clean, cold air under vast blue skies.

But the reality has proved very different for Mabel... the isolation has increased her sense of bleak loneliness, the cold is relentless and she and Jack are virtually starving and speaking to each other less and less.

Everything changes one snowy night when, in a rare moment of carefree fun and laughter, Jack and Mabel build a snow child outside their cabin and dress it in a scarf and mittens.

The following morning, the snow child has become a shapeless heap, the scarf and mittens have disappeared and a small set of boot prints leads across the snow and out into the trees beyond.

When both Jack and Mabel start glimpsing the figure of a small girl flitting through the nearby forest, the spell of this amazing story is cast. Is the child real, is she a figment of their wishful imaginations or are they suffering the hallucinatory ‘cabin fever’ that afflicts those cut off by the harsh Alaskan weather?

Mabel is convinced that the girl is magical, sent to fill their bleak and empty lives; Jack is determined to follow the tracks wherever they may lead, and to whatever the real truth may be...

The Snow Child is a remarkable achievement, a debut novel of awesome beauty, soaring imagination and descriptive power.

Let’s hope there’s more to come from this very talented author.

(Headline Review, hardback, £14.99)