Saturday, 30 November 2013

Best of the Books Part Three: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

It's been a very good year for books - not all of them have been published in the last 12 months, but I've read some crackers in 2013. Admittedly, I've also read some shockers, but for the most part, I've enjoyed almost every book that came my way. However, my end-of-year list is reserved for my absolute favourites, so I've had to be a bit pickier than I normally am, but that doesn't mean I want to ignore all those other books I loved. So now, before I go into my review of my best book, I'd like to make a mention of a few that almost, but didn't quite, make it into my top ten:

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple - this wasn't one I enjoyed at first, but grew on me, and sometimes the growers are the ones you appreciate the most. This erratic tale of a mother gone AWOL was a little too clever for me at first, but eventually found my funny bone.
  • And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini - as mentioned in the Top Ten for 2013, it was Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns that really got to me, but it was And The Mountains Echoed which turned me onto Hosseini's writing, so it deserves an honourable mention. A fantastic story in it's own right, it follows two estranged siblings across the years and over continents as they struggle with the paths they find themselves on, each always aware of the absence of the other.
  • The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers - this would've made it into the top 10 somehow if I'd ever finished it, but the truth is, I'm still struggling. It's not the story that's the problem - it's the sheer size of the book. It's bloody massive - look how huge it is in comparison to an average-sized paperback!:
    So you can see why I've not finished it; it's a bit impractical for reading. But that doesn't mean I don't love it. This tale of a Bluebear's life, lived in caves of pitch-black, on ships with mini-pirates and on islands that look like paradise but will actually eat you is the kind of eccentricity that you usually only get in Monty Python. With some fantastic illustrations and some excellent use of font, it's no wonder this is such a huge book; it's just a shame its size makes it difficult.

So, with the honourable mentions out of the way, I'd like to round off my Best-Of list that started with Rules of Civility and was almost topped by Gods Behaving Badly, by presenting to you my absolute favourite read of 2013: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey.

I must confess, there was never really another contender for the top spot of this list: The Snow Child simply amazed me when I first read it in March of this year, and has hovered in the back of my mind ever since. It's set in the 1920's and is about a middle-aged couple, Jack and Mabel who, after burying their stillborn baby, move to Alaska to start afresh. When we join the couple at their new homestead, they are struggling; Jack is doubting his ability to farm the land, and Mabel fantasises about disappearing between the ice of the nearby river. It is not until they are befriended by their nearest neighbours, the sturdy, brash Bensons, that life becomes possible, and it is not until the mysterious child Faina appears on their doorstep that life becomes worth living. But who is the child who came to them on the night of the first snow, and what will become of her in the summer?

At first it was hard to put my finger on what I loved so much about this book, as there is so much to enjoy. The language is beautiful, with descriptions of landscapes and people being neither too flowery nor too vague; you learn enough about them in time, as you would with any relationship. There's a touch of humour to it as well: Esther Benson, the kindly, larger-than-life Alaskan farmwife provides a lot of the earlier warmth that the novel lacks, whilst a few sweet moments - impromptu snow-angels and snowball fights - take the edge off a bleak first third. However, it was the raw, feral beauty of the Alaskan setting that really caught me: the way in which the suffocating nature of snow and the claustrophobia of winter is portrayed is remarkable, especially to a town-mouse like me who has never really experienced that kind of extreme weather.

There is also the way in which Jack and Mabel rally to their cause, with their mysterious foster-daughter and the kindly Bensons, that makes this book a joy to read. The novel has it's dark moments - Mabel's recalling of the days after her child dies is harrowing, and sometimes I found myself frustrated with the setbacks the couple encounter - but that, I suppose, is the nature of life; not everything is plain sailing. Having said that, for the most part the story is a tale of love, family and triumph, and despite it's cold physical setting, it is a novel to warm the heart, and one that will stay with you long after you close the book.

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