You know you have found a really special book when reading it gives you shivers. This is especially true when you happen to be reading the book in weather conditions far more conducive to sweltering than shivering.
I took Eowyn Ivey’s The Show Child on holiday with me. I read it in surroundings that could not be further removed from the book’s ice-cold, Alaskan setting. And yet despite the fact that I was on a beach, and in the middle of a baking hot Australian summer, I still found myself hopelessly lost in a wintry world of frost and snow.
Set in Alaska in 1920, The Show Child is a retelling of a Russian fairytale. I have always had a soft spot for fairytale re-tellings and was instantly intrigued by the synopsis of this book. I began reading with every expectation of being enchanted and I was not disappointed. The Show Child is enchanting, but more than that it is completely engrossing. This is the kind of book that takes full possession of your senses, transporting you into a landscape that is at once heartbreakingly realistic and breathtakingly beautiful.
Ivey depicts Alaska as a land of stark contrasts. It is harsh and unwelcoming, a lonely and isolated place ruled by the elements. It is an untamed frontier in which survival is a constant battle. At the same time it is a land of austere beauty, a magical wilderness in which anything is possible.
Mabel and Jack have been married for twenty years. Never able to have children, they have left the safety and comfort of life on the East Coast of America in order to start fresh on a farm in the wilds of Alaska.
We first meet the couple as they are preparing to endure a long and brutal winter. Jack is struggling with the farm work and feeling inadequate for what he sees as his failure to provide for his wife. Mabel is prickly and embittered, crippled by a sense of loss over her childlessness.
With truly painful clarity, Ivey manages to convey the quiet despair of a couple who are aware that their marriage is slowly falling apart and feel themselves powerless to save it. The reader is never left in any doubt as to the depth of Jack and Mabel’s love for one another. And yet their relationship is so fraught with tension, the atmosphere so drenched in unspoken grief that the future is looking nothing short of grim. In the same way that feathered crystals of frost creep between the floorboards of their cottage each night, bitter regret is slowly driving a wedge between husband and wife.
In a rare moment of playfulness, the couple decide to build a snowman in the garden. Their longing for a child causes them to fashion “snow child” – a little girl sculpted from snow that they dress in a scarf and mittens. The next morning the “snow child” is gone. There is no sign of the scarf or the mittens. All that remains is a trail of child-sized footprints in the snow. Jack follows the footprints and catches fleeting glimpses of a pale little girl darting through the trees, accompanied by a fox.
The girl calls herself Faina. She is an ethereal creature, wild and otherworldly, who visits in the winter only to vanish in the spring. Jack and Mabel soon grow to love her as a daughter and the effect she has on their lives is incredibly poignant.
Did the couple really create a child out of snow? Ivey handles this question with exactly the brand of delicate subtlety required to make an essentially impossible premise seem not only possible by satisfyingly realistic. This is magical realism at it’s best.
Ivey’s writing is evocative, lyrical and beautifully restrained. She uses gorgeous imagery to tell what is essentially a very simple story, managing to infuse each page with such a depth of feeling that it takes on an almost epic feel. The result is a truly spell- binding tale that is at once whimsical and haunting, but so solidly entrenched in raw human emotion that readers will barely even notice that they have suspended their disbelief.
Ultimately, this is one of those rare books that you will finish with a smile on your face and a lump in your throat. It’s the kind of book that can make you shiver in the middle of summer. But by far the best thing about The Show Child is that it’s Eowyn Ivey’s first novel. With such an impressive debut under her belt, I will be waiting with baited breath to see what she comes up with next.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling