Eowyn Ivey's daring début novel will be hard to follow, notes Nicky Pellegrino.
It's early in the year to be picking favourites but I suspect Alaskan writer Eowyn Ivey's début novel, The Snow Child (Headline, $34.99), will be one of my best reads of 2012. This is a magical and delicately written story based on a Russian folk tale in which a childless couple sculpt a daughter out of snow. It's one of those books that transports you to the place it's set, with descriptions so vivid I could almost feel the bone-aching cold even though I was reading it in the middle of summer.
Set in the 1920s, it tells of a middle-aged couple, Jack and Mabel, who have moved to farm the Alaskan wilderness in a bid to escape the grief of their childlessness. As the story begins it is almost winter and Mabel is dreading the struggle of the dark, frozen months ahead. The wilderness is beautiful but "it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all". This is a harsh place to survive and Mabel has a lonely, silent life with little money to spare and mostly only her taciturn husband for company.
Then the first snow falls and in a rare playful moment the couple make a snow girl, decorating it with mittens and a scarf. When they wake to find the snow girl gone and a childish figure in a blue scarf running through the trees, neither is sure whether to believe their eyes. For how could anyone survive out in that frozen, savage landscape?
The child returns again and again. She is wild and beautiful, covered in frost and crystals of ice and hunts for wild game in the company of a red fox. She moves fast and dances over the snow. But is she real? Both the child and the story itself have an ethereal quality and Ivey creates a lingering doubt that the couple are imagining the girl.
Gradually, the snow child comes closer and they learn her name, Faina, and something of her story. She resists all attempts to tame her but tentatively accepts their love and each winter when the snows come so does Faina. Then when spring arrives, she disappears.
Remembering the fairy tale about the snow maiden, Mabel is haunted by a dread of losing the elusive child; fearing Faina might die or fail to return one winter.
It's a risky business blending fairy tale with reality, but Ivey's writing is sensitive enough to make it work. The whole of this desolate and fantastical story is chilled by a sense of unease and a feeling sorrow may only be moments away. It has emotional depth and the hardships of the pioneering life to balance out its feyness. And while the phantom girl flits in and out of the story, the character of Mabel is what holds it steady: she is dignified and sad, struggling mentally and physically, filled with love and longing.
The Snow Child is a tender and powerful novel, wonderfully atmospheric and beautifully crafted, a joy to read from start to finish. I almost feel sorry for Ivey, for such a dream of a debut is going to be a nightmare to follow.