The greater part of a fairy tale’s power resides in its brevity. Within a circumscribed field of prose, concrete details glisten like beads of blood on white muslin. They prick like thorns at the flesh, ring out like an ax striking wood. We don’t expect its characters to behave quite like real people, nor do we not expect the story to explain itself rationally or resolve its mysteries completely. Every fairy tale comes with an implicit covenant: It promises to charm, and we pledge our willingness to be bemused, perhaps unsettled.
Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, owes much to the conventions of fairy tales, beginning with its premise, borrowed from a traditional Russian folk tale: A childless man and woman build a child out of snow; the next day a mysterious girl appears, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the figure they moulded the night before. From this kernel, Ivey cultivates an extended saga of loss, longing and – more interesting – the countervailing desires we may all harbour for both wildness and domesticity.
Something fairy tales don’t typically offer is what Ian McEwan has called the “luxury of psychology” afforded by novels. In their symbol-laden concision, fairy tales contain the code but not the concoction, the blueprint but not the building. It’s up to readers, drawing upon our own experiences and imaginations, to fill in the shades of meaning, to flesh out the sparely etched shapes. Far from compromising a fairy tale’s charm, this requirement enhances readers’ involvement. We find ourselves leaning in as if over a dark, deep pool in which we can make out not only the brilliant images of the story but also, dimly, our own wavering reflections.
So Ivey’s decision to re-imagine the folk tale as a lengthier work – and at nearly 400 pages, this is no slim volume – feels ambitious, risky. Will she deliver the luxury of fully realized, complex characters, and if so, at what cost to the haunting power of the source material? Or will she remain true to the sparer emotional outlines of the original, and if so, will this choice prove sustainable at a novel’s length? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Set in 1920s Alaska, the book’s most compelling passages – both those rooted in narrative realism and those whose notes bend toward more mystical frequencies – draw gorgeously upon the author’s native knowledge of her home state. Jack and Mabel have left Pennsylvania, where the memory of a stillborn baby grieves them, and travelled to the territory as middle-aged homesteaders. When we meet them, winter is looming. They are frozen in their marriage, down on their luck, running out of food. Each is drowning privately in despair: Mabel flirts with suicideto sourdough starterWhere does she go every spring, and why doesn’t she return until the next snowfall?
In its finest moments, the novel conjures the arcane in sublimely earthy prose, as in this description of Faina’s scent: “Labrador tea, elderberry, nettle, fresh snow.” /note> And if Faina herself remains always beyond the reach of our comprehension and our credulity, perhaps that’s intrinsic to her – and to this book’s – modest charm. “You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them,” thinks Mabel eventually /note>. “Perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers.” /note>
Leah Hager Cohen’s most recent novel is The Grief of Others.