“Is she real?” is the question the reader asks about the strange, wild little girl at the center of Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child. Faina shows up in the dead of winter at the home of Mabel and Jack, a married couple who are trying, without too much success, to make a go of it as homesteaders in post-World War I Alaska.
Faina lives all by herself in the woods. Her skin is ice pale, her hair so blonde that it’s white. She seems to thrive in cold and snow and can’t tolerate heat; Mabel actually fears she’ll melt if she gets too close to a fire. She appears after Mabel and Jack build a snow child in their yard one whimsical night, and Mabel thinks she’s both a manifestation of her and Jack’s deep longing for a child and a sprite out of a Russian fairy tale. Unwinding alongside the mystery of Faina is the very palpable reality of Alaska. Ivey’s depictions of the state she was born in are literally breathtaking. You feel the snow and cold in your lungs, as if you’ve inhaled the place’s icy air, or spent time crunching through pure white blinding snow that comes up to the knees. Very rarely has the beauty and unyieldingness of nature been described so sensuously.
The reader also cares about Ivey’s characters. Mabel and Jack deserve a measure of happiness, and it would take a hard heart not to adore their salt-of-the-earth neighbors. But wrapped around everything is the enigma of Faina. Who or what is she, really? The answer is just one of the elements that make The Snow Child such a splendid, magical book.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Set in Alaska in the 1920s, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a story of stark realism with a little bit of magic thrown in for good measure. Jack and Mabel struggle to eke out an existence on their farm as their marriage slowly disintegrates. She is lonely, and he is tired, and their prospects seem especially hopeless during the bleak winter season. One day, they build a child from snow—an act that changes their lives forever. The snow child disappears overnight, but Jack and Mabel soon catch sight of a young girl in the woods. Named Faina, the girl knows how to live on her own in the wild. Jack and Mabel are fascinated by the magical, otherworldly child, but there’s more to Faina than they realize, and her sudden appearance in their lives has remarkable consequences. This is Ivey’s debut, but she writes with the assurance of a seasoned novelist. Offering up breathtaking descriptions of the Alaskan landscape, she has created her own type of fairy tale—a story that’s compelling from start to finish.
Lydia Millet’s spellbinding Ghost Lights features an unlikely adventurer: an IRS employee named Hal. With a paraplegic daughter and an unfaithful wife, Hal—tired of work and life in Los Angeles—is ready for a change. When his wife’s boss, T., goes missing in Belize, Hal decides to find him. His quest turns out to be the trip of a lifetime—one that lands him in the wilds of Central America, where violence and political upheaval rule the day—and pulls Hal well out of his comfort zone. Millet’s book is a true page-turner. It’s dramatic and suspenseful, but it’s also a poignant portrait of a man in search of fulfillment. Exploring the ways in which growth and transformation can occur when they’re least expected, Millet has written an adventure novel that’s emotionally rich and psychologically penetrating. (Note: Millet’s latest novel, Magnificence, is reviewed in this month’s fiction section.)
TOP PICK IN BOOK CLUBS
What happens to a novelist when fantasy and reality coalesce? Helen Oyeyemi explores this question in her fourth book, Mr. Fox, which features a novelist named St. James Fox. A British author working in the 1930s, Fox consistently kills the heroines in his books—a habit that upsets Mary Foxe, the imaginary young woman who serves as his muse. When she comes to life and pays Fox a visit in person, she issues a proposition: The two of them will cook up a series of stories in which they both have roles. It’s an adventuresome game that kindles a romance of sorts—a fact that disturbs Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne. Oyeyemi spins this complex tale with the greatest of ease, presenting the narrative in a fascinating series of interconnected stories set in varying eras and locales. This is a delightfully provocative book that’s sure to charm lovers of literary fiction.
I was intrigued by this book after learning that galleys would be available at BEA and ALA--impressive for a first novel that's not a slash-and-dash thriller. Then I chatted with the publicist, who reported that Ivey's work is why we all in our various ways go into this book business. In 1920s Alaska, newcomers Jack and Mabel struggle against despair, finally building a snow child to distract themselves. The next morning, their creation is gone, but they spot a blonde-haired girl running in the forest and soon come to regard her as the daughter they never had. A fairy tale with an edge.[Page 50]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Here's a modern retelling of the Russian fairy tale about a girl, made from snow by a childless couple, who comes to life. Or perhaps not modern--the setting is 1920s Alaska--but that only proves the timelessness of the tale and of this lovely book. Unable to start a family, middle-aged Jack and Mabel have come to the wilderness to start over, leaving behind an easier life back east. Anxious that they won't outlast one wretched winter, they distract themselves by building a snow girl and wrap her in a scarf. The snow girl and the scarf are gone the next morning, but Jack spies a real child in the woods. Soon Jack and Mabel have developed a tentative relationship with the free-spirited Faina, as she finally admits to being called. Is she indeed a "snow fairy," a "wilderness pixie" magicked out of the cold? Or a wild child who knows better than anyone how to survive in the rugged north? Even as Faina embodies a natural order that cannot be tamed, the neighborly George and Esther show Jack and Mabel (and the rest of us) how important community is for survival. VERDICT A fluid, absorbing, beautifully executed debut novel; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 9/21/11.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 114]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.