Review: The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)

“She had thought often of Ada’s words about inventing new endings to stories and choosing joy over sorrow. In recent years she had decided her sister had been in part wrong. Suffering and death and loss were inescapable. And yet, what Ada had written about joy was entirely true. When she stands before you with her long, naked limbs and her mysterious smile, you must embrace her while you can.”

Quick Review

I gave The Snow Child a hugely deserved ★★★

Why you should read this book: It’s rare that a modern novel captures the magic and escapism that an old fairy tale can provide, but Eowyn Ivey presents us with a story that delivers this in spades. There is something here for both older children who are more recently acquainted with fairy tales, and adults who haven’t quite forgotten them. Regardless of location or fairy tale occurrence, readers of The Snow Child can find characters to relate to in Mabel and Jack, and will be inevitably sucked into their relationship, their struggles, and their joys. An Alaskan backdrop shivers off the page, and is lovingly illustrated by an author who knows her setting and her characters well.

Full review

I was fortunate enough to be gifted a copy of this book by Waterstones as a read and review copy. I am shamefully, shamefully late in reviewing it, but better late than never. Right? To briefly fill you in, I finally broke the ranks of unemployed graduate in March, and got a much-wanted job in publishing, which meant returning to Oxford. It’s been a hectic few months, but this marks my return.

If anything, the lateness of my review says nothing about the quality of the book, because I loved every moment of it.  It has taken a little while to sink in, I suppose, but months later, I’m still thinking about it

By writing about what she knows, Eoywn Ivey has done a wonderful job of setting the scene. She lays out a vivid and palpable landscape for the reader; the arctic beauty and loneliness of the Alaskan frontier. I read a large portion of this book whilst travelling between Glasgow and Wigan on the train, and despite the relative warmth of my carriage, I certainly felt a shiver or two. Ivey’s biggest success in the setting of her novel, I felt, was the affection and awe for the Alaskan backdrop which glided off the page, even throughout the difficulty reality it often presents for the protagonists.  There is no doubt that Ivey is in a prime position to convey the experience of living in Alaska to her readers. A simple visit to her website tells you that she resides there, living quite the interesting life. She has a firsthand (if slightly more modern) knowledge of many of the activities that are described in The Snow Child, for example, cultivating her family’s own crops and hunting for meat. This knowledge is certainly what lends such a realistic air to this first novel and is a clear example of what many novelists preach: Write What You Know.

However, realism isn’t the only thing that seeps through the pages of The Snow Child. The struggle of our central characters, Mabel and Jack, to survive in the wilds of Alaska, is entwined with an old fairy tale. You may have read some variant of it before. I vaguely remember a story of a woman who swallows a snowflake and conceives a child. Her husband returns home after being away for a few years, to find he has a son. He pretends to believe the story, but later sells the boy as a slave, telling his wife that the child of snow melted. Heart-warming stuff. Ivey’s The Snow Child originates from a somewhat gentler story, a Russian fairy tale, known as Snegurochka (or, The Snow Maiden). She has described coming across an illustrated version of the story, and realising what an excellent backdrop her homeland of Alaska would make for a retelling of the tale. As in The Snow Child, Snegurochka usually tells the story of a child made from snow who comes to a childless couple, bringing them joy. Within my UK edition of this book, the original story is provided as both a point of reference, and for the reader’s continued enjoyment.

Ivey’s characters remain vivid and compelling throughout the book, and you feel their individual struggles keenly. However, she does ensure that they keep a certain distance from the reader in their emotions which was quite relieving for me. Usually, retellings of traditional stories are difficult to keep in check when re-imagined as novels. The pain of a childless couple, suddenly embracing the impossibility of a child made of snow, come to life, could easily lapse into a blancmange of sentimentality and emotion. I strongly dislike this in a book. I recently read Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, which started out well, but I came out detesting the manipulation of the reader’s emotions. A successful author, I feel, is one who can paint the suffering of her characters so clearly, but still keep them just out of reach. A reader can relate to a character without drowning in sentiment. Ivey achieves this beautifully.

I highly recommend wearing a scarf and keeping a hot pot of tea nearby when you delve into this book. Embrace hibernation; you won’t want to leave The Snow Child until you’ve got to the last page. This is a story that you will want to thrust into the hands of friends and family, and I thank Waterstones for bringing it to my attention. (I also want to add that this review will appear on the Waterstones website as a customer review, as a condition of my receiving a free copy).