The Snow Child
London, Headline, 2012, 423p
I love rewritten fairy tales - contemporary writers drawing on years of oral story-telling and folklore to create a modern morality tale, often loaded with ghostly happenings and psychological horror.
The Snow Child is just that. Eowyn Ivey has taken an old Russian fairy story about an elderly couple who cannot have children of their own, but are blessed when a snowchild they make one winter evening turns into a real little girl.
In this modern re-imagining, we find ourselves in Alaska in the 1920s, where Jack and Mabel have opted to start a new life. They have bought a farm far away from their home and loved ones, and are working hard to get it established. But they are cursed with cold winters, and while Jack slaves away on the rough, unyielding land, Mabel is left alone at home. The nights are long and dark, and Mabel is haunted by the loss of her child ten years earlier.
Then one day, in heavy snow, Jack and Mabel are reunited in making a snowman, which they mould and dress to look like a beautiful little girl. The next morning, the mitten and scarf are gone, and Jack sees a little figure running through the trees. Slowly, the young girl in the woods comes to trust Jack and Mabel, and they take her into their lives. But every summer, she returns to the forest, and they must wait and hope that she will return.
The concept makes for a beautifully tragic tale, but I found myself frustrated whilst reading it - for many reasons. Firstly, I was annoyed at Jack and Mabel's inability to communicate. At the beginning of the story, the death of their child has created a chasm between the couple, which is bridged by the arrival of the snow girl. And yet, her presence does not completely simplify things - as they are the only people who have seen her, their friends worry about their mental states, believing cabin fever is making them see strange things.
Secondly, I found the plot to be somewhat predictable. In part, this was because I already had a vague idea of the original fairy tale of the snow child. But also, I think Ivey did not fully explore the idea of the snow child as a ghost or hallucination. As such, the Gothic tropes in the novel were lacking - the novel was not the psychological thriller I had wished it would be.
And finally, I thought this novel was probably about 200 pages too long. I read fervently, hoping for twists and turns, but little happened. This allowed for some beautiful descriptive passages - the setting becomes a character in itself and was probably the most Gothic element of the story. Towards the end of the novel, as the snow child grows up, her own story starts to take hold and there is more pace, but this did not make up for the earlier lack of plot development.
Essentially, I think I had overestimated the novel, thinking it would have been a Gothic rewriting when really it was just a beautifully written and more developed fairy tale. I really like the idea behind it, but even when the idea of the snow child as a ghost was introduced, it was not performed particularly well. I was gripped, but merely in the hope that it was going to get better.