Five Books for Winter

As winter deepens and it gets colder, it’s time to curl up indoors in a cosy room with mugs of hot drinks and good books that capture the essence of the season. I wrote these seasonal posts for Summer and Autumn and now that we enter the last week of December, here are five atmospheric reads for Winter.

Click on the links for detailed reviews…

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (tr. from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending this deeply atmospheric novella an other-worldly quality.

ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury. To make matters worse, Ethan and his wife Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan. In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan.

It’s a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

WINTER LOVE by Han Suyin

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain during winter at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses. During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across the beautiful, wealthy, dreamy Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

The novel, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. 

THE ICE PALACE by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)

The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond in a narrative where things are implied, never explicitly stated. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship, redemption and recovery and the power of nature.

ICE by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred. When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves who continues to remain elusive. The disorienting nature of the book is precisely its strength, it’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not. Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers – the world she has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice, on the brink of an apocalypse.

Ethan Frome & Summer – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.

ETHAN FROME

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.

He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.

Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).

An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).

Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.

In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.

Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.

Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.

Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.

Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.

SUMMER

Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.

Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…

As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.

We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.

That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.

But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.

Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.

After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.

All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.

Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.

Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).

She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.

Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.

In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.

As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.

TO CONCLUDE…

Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.

Twelve Nights – Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

Set in the Black Forest in the deeps of winter, Twelve Nights is a wonderfully atmospheric novella of family, love, guilt, reconciliation and redemption.

The book opens with our protagonist, Manfred, traversing a snowy landscape on foot, making his way to his family home, a place he has not visited in the last forty odd years. The sole occupant of the house now is his younger brother, Sebastian, a recluse hardly ever seen by the people in the village. At the village inn, Manfred learns of the aura of bad luck surrounding Sebastian – the farm is falling apart and his wife Minna is long dead.

On his trek and even later when he is settled in his lodgings, Manfred is haunted by the ghosts of his past…memories which had lain buried deep in his mind, come floating to the surface. He reminisces about his father, mother, Sebastian, and his own love for Minna, an unwavering love whose flame is tragically extinguished.

A story rooted in folklore, tradition, and superstitions, Manfred reflects on the rituals performed by his mother to ward off evil spirits especially during the twelve-day period between Christmas and Epiphany.

The image of his mother’s face had always been there, all this time. Year in and year out, she had told stories about these nights, the Twelve Nights, Dodecameron, which threatened disorder and peril through the work of dark forces, the abysses gaping open: a disaster which drew even closer, towards the feast of St Thomas, New Year’s Eve, and Epiphany. She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family.

He ruminates on the bond he shared with Sebastian and their differing personalities – Sebastian is quiet, a man of very few words, awkward, while he is quite the opposite. His younger brother not quite fit for hard farm work, it seems quite certain that Manfred will inherit the farm.

But more importantly, Manfred dwells on Minna, the love of his life, certain then that they were destined to marry since Minna too reciprocated his feelings. Displaying a deep love for the land, Minna and Manfred build plans about their future only to see them wither away.

The root of this is a development that jolts Manfred and shocks him to the core. Unleashing a wave of anger in Manfred so deep and intense, he is driven by an act of revenge that has devastating consequences. Unable to come to terms with this, he relocates to a bigger town and loses all contact with his family including Minna. And yet, his torch turns bright for Minna, he can’t forget her, his Minna who goes on to marry Sebastian. Now, visiting his roots after all these years, Manfred is plagued with guilt and regret.

Twelve Nights, then, is lush with writing that is poetic, spare, and haunting. It’s a novella replete with dreamy prose and vivid imagery and packs a slew of weightier themes in a miniscule package – the debilitating consequences of revenge, crippling guilt, a piercing sense of loss, and a profound hope of reconciliation.

The book is awash with gorgeous descriptions of a winter landscape – vistas of enchanting icicles, deep drifts of snow, a misty haze that hangs over the village, the all-encompassing quiet and silence spurred on by the densely falling snowflakes, the leaden gloom of the forest.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors.

At its very core, this is a novella about the complexity of family relationships. Unspeakable tragedies can rip apart the fabric of family life, but it is not always easy to entirely sever ties. As the years pile on, and we grow older, the idea of loneliness haunts us, the inner cries for reconciliation only grow louder and a deep-rooted desire for redemption emerges above all else. These are the feelings that confront Manfred as he hopes to make amends. A lovely, wintry read, Faes ends the novella in such a way that the reader can interpret it anyway he/she chooses.

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.

 

Ice – Anna Kavan

I had meaning to read Anna Kavan – specifically Ice – for quite some time now but the tags ‘science fiction’ and ‘difficult book’ probably made me hesitant. But then I saw new versions of this novel being released by Peter Owen Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. These brilliant covers finally gave me the push I needed.

And as I kept turning the pages, I had to admit that all my prejudices were unfounded. Indeed, it dawned on me that to simply label Ice as science fiction was plain lazy, because there is so much more going on. Anyway, to cut a long story short; I absolutely loved Ice.

Ice Peter Owen
Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

Ice is one of those books that are easy to read but difficult to write about.

Here’s what Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote in a foreword to the book:

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a work of literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type.

Essentially it’s a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred.

When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves.

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar.

We learn that the narrator and this girl were seeing each other in earlier days, although for a brief period.

I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.

There’s more to her…

Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.

We then learn that she suddenly ditches the narrator and marries another man. The narrator goes to meet the couple at their home, and sees that she remains in a state of terror and submission in the marriage as well.

Later the husband tells the narrator that the girl has escaped, and from then onwards, the narrator decides to make his quest for finding the girl his sole purpose, above anything else.

This is also where the novel begins to take on a dream like quality, and as a reader you are strangely compelled to go along with the flow rather than try to make any sense of it.

Throughout the book, the sequence keeps on repeating…the narrator boards a ship, he reaches a town where he sees the girl only to lose her again.

For instance, in the initial pages, the narrator reaches an unnamed town and gathers that it is governed by the Warden, a powerful and brutal man. He knows that the girl is with him and makes a request to see her, but his efforts prove futile.

It’s a recurring pattern, as the girl continues to remain elusive. And yet, the narrator can’t let go of her. He wants to find her at all cost, even when during some moments of rationality, he acknowledges that he needs to abandon this desperate need to go after her.

Ice then is a tale of male obsession and desire, also giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into female objectification.

It’s a book that is disorienting and defies logic and that is precisely its strength. It’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not.

Ice also has streaks of science fiction elements running through it. The world Kavan has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice. It is a world on the brink of an apocalypse. It’s also in the description of this environment, where Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers…

She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging ring of frigid, fiery colossal waves about to collapse upon her.

And here…

Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling lava had poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path.

There are many set pieces in this novel each with more or less the same result, but it’s where Kavan’s writing clearly excels. One such section to me was quite hypnotic. It was when on learning about the ice catastrophe, the Warden flees his country and forces the girl to go with him.

It was incomprehensible to her, this extraordinary flight that went on and on. The forest went on forever, the silence went on and on. The snow stopped, but the cold went on and even increased, as if some icy exudation from the black trees congealed beneath them. Hour after hour passed before a little reluctant daylight filtered down through the roof of branches, revealing nothing but gloomy masses of firs, dead and living trees tangled together, a dead bird often caught in the branches, as if the tree had caught it deliberately.

Ice Penguin Modern
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

Just as Ice is an incredibly fascinating read so is its author’s profile. Kavan was married twice and once her second marriage ended, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns for which she was confined to a clinic in Switzerland.

Kavan also suffered bouts of mental illness and was addicted to heroin for a considerable period. In a sense, there are influences of this in her novels. The hallucinatory effect of Ice probably corresponds to the unreal, surreal world that exists for a drug addict.

Given that Ice refuses to follow conventional norms of fiction or storytelling, it is challenging to define it. But if you are willing to accept its arbitrariness, and its strangeness, then the experience of reading it is as exhilarating as any whiff of joint.

Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.