Review: A beautiful rework of a Russian fairy tale
“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees”
What an astounding debut novel for American author Eowyn Ivey. Based on the Russian fairy tale ‘Snegurochka’- The Snow Maiden- Ivey tells a tale full of heartbreak, sorrow, happiness and hope.
Jack and Mabel are an old couple who move to the harsh landscape of Alaska, in the hopes of having a fresh start after the devastating loss of their child. Heavy with grief and and isolated from each other by a gulf of misery and despair, they find that they cannot simply leave their old lives behind and struggle to make a new life for themselves on their homestead. Instead of reaching out to each other for comfort, Jack and Mabel have both retreated into themselves, hiding away from the rest of the world and struggling to understand why nature will not allow them the child they want so desperately. However one night during a brief moment of happiness, they build a small snow child outside of their cabin. The snow child is gone the next day, but soon after they begin to see a small, blond haired girl darting in the woods when there is no one else around them for miles.
So begins Jack and Mabel’s relationship with a child who helps them to learn to love and find happiness again. Mabel strives to understand how this child of the woods appeared to them in the snow just like in the traditional Russian folklore. However Ivey includes a few surprises of her own in her reworking of the fairy tale, and the boundaries between magic and fairy tales and realism very gently melt into one another. Is this girl the snow child? If she is not then who is she, and why has she came to Jack and Mabel?
I love that Ivey took the haunting fairy tale of the snow child as the basis of her novel, but the setting is one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading the novel so much. Do not get the impression that the novel incorporates delicate detail only; the reader is thrown into the snowy Alaskan territory that the author knows well,
“It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scored you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”
A captivating but cruel place, Ivey’s descriptive prose constructs the danger of the wild and at its heart the desperate need for survival in a hard, bleak place- not just the animals that live in the woods and mountains but for Jack and Mabel themselves, who are crumbling apart from grief and must learn to go on with life at some point.
Some readers have criticised the novel for its ‘disappointing’ ending. I did not find it disappointing but inevitable, and the vagueness of the ending only maintained the magical and fairy tale-like qualities that the author has weaved throughout the whole narrative.
The Snow Child is an enchanting and powerful novel, where Ivey creates a beautiful world and we watch the touching tale that unfolds before it. Full of real emotion and unforgettable.
Do I recommend you to read it? Yes, especially if you enjoy fairy tales/ folklore
Genre: fairy tale/ fantasy/ magical realism