Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures.

The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

Once in Japan, the daughter has chalked out various sightseeing activities for the two to enjoy and talk over. These involve visits to museums and galleries to appreciate art, leisurely meals at cafés and restaurants, and strolls along the canals on autumn evenings. While these settings constitute the present, they also form a focal point from which both women make journeys to their past. We learn that the mother is originally from Hong Kong but relocates after marriage to another city where she must begin life anew. She reflects on her Cantonese roots, the tale of her brother’s unrequited love and her childhood shaped by always being surrounded by people with no room for isolation.

The daughter narrates her experiences too – her student life studying literature and films, her admiration for her lecturer who lets her spend time alone in her house when she goes on holiday, her first job as a waitress, her relationship with her partner Laurie, her ambivalence towards motherhood (“I had never particularly wanted children, but somehow I felt the possibility of it now, as lovely and elusive as a poem”), the contrast in personalities between her and her sister.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

The friction between mother and daughter on the trip is very subtly conveyed, particularly in the way the daughter feels conflicted. On the one hand, she wants her mother to go with her to various places of interest in the city. However, she is also aware of her mother’s age and its limitations, and waning levels of interest as compared to hers – facts that the daughter chooses not to acknowledge.

On their various museum trips, the daughter is enthralled by some of the artworks that they see and they move her in a way that she can’t quite fathom, but she fails to communicate the essence of some of those artworks to her mother. The mother, meanwhile, tags along with her everywhere but it becomes apparent that she is not as vested in art as her daughter is. Indeed, the daughter is forced to accept that the one place where she sees her mother at her happiest is at a gift shop in the underground train station. Various items of clothing and the prospect of buying gifts for her family and friends animate her in a way that the carefully planned sightseeing excursions do not.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. For instance, during a visit to Laurie’s father’s house, she is struck by his artistic skill, of his ability to pick out the small details of the world that many others would have missed.

The elusiveness of the novella is also palpable in the details we are privy to. For instance, through the mother and daughter’s conversations and reflections, we get some sort of a feel for the family, their memories of certain periods and moments in their life, and yet there are many things we don’t know – basic, essential things such as their names and where they currently reside.

Cold Enough for Snow, then, is a novella that captures the essence of solitude and quiet reflection. An introspective air wafts through the book, offering a glimpse into the narrator’s inner world that no one has access to but herself. It’s a meditation on how each of us has our own inner world that only we are aware of, outside the reach of others. During a meal shared with her mother and sister, our narrator thinks back to the evenings spent in contemplation at her lecturer’s home where she “sat in decadent solitude, with her single glass of wine each night, thinking over the day.” She does not share this moment with her mother and she also knows that various aspects of her mother’s life and her innermost thoughts remain a closed door to her. For instance, when the mother was at an age her daughter is now, she had already made a new life for herself in a new country. The daughter admits that she can’t possibly imagine her mother’s first few months in the new country, the struggles of adapting to a different way of life.

Cold Enough for Snow is an ode to the way we see and appreciate art. In the earlier pages, here are the thoughts that flit though the daughter’s mind while gazing at some of the museum pieces, particularly fabrics…

Their patterns were at once primitive and graceful, and as beautiful as the garments in a folktale. Looking at the translucency of the overlapping dyes reminded me of looking upwards through a canopy of leaves. They reminded me of the seasons and, in their bare, visible threads, of something lovely and honest that had now been forgotten, a thing we could only look at but no longer live. I felt at the same time mesmerised by their beauty and saddened at this vague thought. 

And the book is also evocative when conveying the simple pleasures of life. Here is the narrator highlighting the exquisite joy of her solitary stay at her lecturer’s home…

Sometimes, I poured myself a glass of wine and dimmed the lights, or else played a record, turning the volume up so that the music filled the whole house. If it was warm, I opened the windows and on those nights the scent of the lilacs that grew near the fence would drift in from the garden, blending with the music and with my simple, solitary meal.

Cold Enough for Snow reverberates with sensory images – the smell of the steam, the tea and the rain; dreamy vistas (“Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses”), the beauty of the Impressionist paintings which “contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and paths and gardens and ever-changing light.”

Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Light shimmers on the pages (“Light came down in shafts through the dirtied windows, and the motes stirred in them, like the air from a newly threshed harvest of wheat that Chekhov had once written about in one of his stories.”), and the book is suffused with splashes of blue – the glaze of the ceramic bowls which “looked like liquid, like a blue pond”, the dark museum room which “seemed to be a deep, impenetrable blue, like the blue of an evening”, the daughter’s scarf “as blue as the cobalt of Delft tableware.”

The language is spare and yet so expressive while describing objects of art, the beauty of nature and the characters’ state of mind. When mother and daughter take a route along the canal, the “water gave a shaking, delicate impression of the world above.” On a walking trail, “the path was like a corridor, surrounded by trees on either side, tall and spirit-like, swaying around me as if to a sound I could not hear.”

Finally, there’s a passage in the book when the daughter is reminiscing about her time as a waitress at an elegant Chinese restaurant, its otherworldly aura (“dim, carefully lit rooms and dark polished floors”), and its sense of weight and precision, “as if to create a floating world.” This fleeting mention of the restaurant’s atmosphere particularly reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, where he wonderfully captures Japan’s sensual world of nightlife – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink. On hindsight, there is something about the quietness of this novella that has shades of Ishiguro in it.

I read Cold Enough for Snow in the days after my father died, a difficult time when I could not concentrate on anything. This novel was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.


9 thoughts on “Cold Enough for Snow – Jessica Au

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your father.

    I was just reading Jacqui’s review of this. It sounds extremely good, rather special. It’s definitely one I plan to pick up. Nicely reviewed.


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