The two books that have made the biggest impression on me so far this year are the Costa prizewinning Pure, by Andrew Miller, and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.
Coincidentally, I read The Snow Child at the end of January, when most of the UK was blanketed in snow. As I watched snowflakes drift gently past my Oxford window the view looked tame in comparison to the desolate Alaskan landscape where Ivey’s novel is set.
Alaskan born and bred, she knows the place like the back of her hand and excels at describing a magical world where wild animals appear out of hidden crevasses, waterfalls of ice cascade off the mountainside and the snow is so deep that you can get lost just a few minutes from home.
Ivey’s first novel is set in the 1920s and tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who move to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life.
They expect “a land of milk and honey” but are in for a rude awakening. Winters are harsh and food is scarce. Jack finds working on the land backbreaking, while Mabel experiences acute loneliness and despair. To add to their plight, they’re both struggling to cope with the loss of their only child, who was stillborn ten years earlier.
But one winter’s night, their mood lifts when they make a little girl out of snow, complete with red scarf and mittens. The next morning the snow child has completely vanished. But all of a sudden, Jack glimpses a small blonde figure dashing through the trees, red scarf at her neck.
As the child comes and goes as she pleases, often with a red fox at her heels, the couple start to love her as their own daughter. But is the little girl real or a figment of their imagination? Cooped up in their remote homestead, could their minds be playing tricks on them?
Ivey was inspired to write The Snow Child after discovering an old Russian folk tale about a couple who see the little snow girl they sculpt turn into a real-life child. The result is a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £14.99)