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Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen and the varieties of religious experience

Cunningham’s skilful dissection of the everyday leads us into deeper questions.

Richard Phibbs

The Snow Queen
Michael Cunningham

What if you saw a light in the sky? What if, on a normal night, out for a jog, the eye of God opened and saw you?

Would you change your life? How?

These are the questions at the heart of Michael Cunningham's new novel The Snow Queen. Barrett Meeks, middle-aged and Ivy League educated, "a perverse, wrong-headed Catholic even in his grade school days," is about as unlikely a candidate for a religious vision as you could imagine. He is taken aback by the event and struggles to understand it, to incorporate it into his sense of himself and the world around him.

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"Although he's seen something extraordinary," writes Cunningham, "and hopes it isn't the precursor of a modern ailment he failed to find on the Internet, he has not been instructed, he has not been transformed, there's been no message or command, and he is exactly who he was last night.

"However. The question arises: Who was he last night? Has he in fact been altered in some subtle way, or has he simply been rendered more conscious of the particulars of his own ongoing condition?"

Barrett's "condition" is achingly human, and familiar. He lives with his brother, Tyler, a struggling musician with a drug problem, and with Tyler's wife, Beth, who is dying of cancer. Surrounding this trio is a handful of secondary characters – Liz, the owner of the vintage clothing boutique where Barrett works; Andrew, Liz's pretty-boy lover who Barrett pines after; Sam, the story's eventual Messiah. The characters are packed together tightly, their configurations changing and intersecting in ways both predictable and surprising.

This is a book that grapples with many big questions: divinity, mortality, fidelity, addiction, art. Yet despite the death, the affairs, the drama, there is a feeling that nothing much happens in The Snow Queen. Or rather, the stuff of modern middle-class living happens. But it is precisely in the banality of the daily that Cunningham hooks us in, tapping into our malaise, our murky but desperate hope that it all might mean something after all.

Ultimately, he could have dispensed with Barrett's vision – which is mostly just a trope – and the book would still have been lovely. It might even have been stronger for it.

That said, The Snow Queen has much to recommend it. It shifts effortlessly between perspectives, focusing on the pair of brothers while giving us enough of the secondary characters to make them feel unquestionably real. On a technical level, a rotating third-person perspective is not hard to pull off, but it is difficult to pull it off as seamlessly as Cunningham does, so that the reader is almost unconscious of it, so the perspectives are sewn together as in patches of a quilt and we are only aware of the overall beautiful whole. This effortlessness is characteristic of Cunningham's writing in general. It is clean, crystalline as the ice it evokes, receding frequently into the background where we don't notice it for pages at a time, and then declaring itself with a stylistic flourish so beautiful it takes our breath away.

The plot, subtle as it may be, is doled out carefully, the narrative tension strengthened and re-strengthened. Michael Cunningham mines the modern consciousness like a surgeon. We recognize ourselves; we think, "Oh, I've never thought of it that way before."

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It must be noted that Cunningham wrote The Hours, the tribute to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway on which the movie starring Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep was based. Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for the book, which was lauded by critics worldwide, and it is difficult to evaluate The Snow Queen outside of that context.

Is The Snow Queen as good as The Hours? It is not. It is not The Hours, but it doesn't need to be. It stands on its own, not as a modern masterpiece but as a dreamy, evocative examination of contemporary existence, of what it is to be alive and what it is to be saved, not by a light in the sky but by the very human love of the people around us.

Alison Pick's novel Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Her memoir Between Gods will be published this fall.

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