Columns > Published on December 1st, 2014

Three Books About... Snow

They say no two snowflakes look alike, an idea with such immediate relevance to the over-nurtured product of modern middle-class rearing practices that a whole subreddit is devoted to tales of Special Snowflakes — people afflicted with the syndrome of thinking that they’re unique, special and just a bit better than everyone else. None of us are, of course, and no one actually knows if two identical snowflakes have ever touched down on planet Earth, but the results of a snow storm — the transformation of our dirty, ugly quotidian reality into something clean and white and fleetingly sacred — have proved a lasting source of inspiration for many of our greatest books.

This time of year brings snow to the Northern latitudes, sometimes more of it than is completely comfortable, and that makes it seem right to choose three classic novels which have snow at their heart, and take a look at the literary purposes to which their authors have put this cold, fragile, impermanent substance.

'Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow' by Peter Høeg

Høeg’s second novel, Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne in the original Danish) broke the ice for Scandinavian literature long before the Millennium trilogy was so much as a cold glint in Stieg Larssen’s eye. After success in its home market, Smilla went global and spawned a high profile movie version, directed by Danish directorial legend Bille August. Smilla is probably the most accessible of Høeg’s works: a crime story of peculiarly Northern bleakness which begins with the death of a Greenlander child, who has apparently fallen from the roof of the apartment building he shares with Miss Smilla. But Smilla, half Greenlander herself, has a feeling for snow and for reading the tracks left in it. She believes the child fell because he was chased and she wants to know who did the chasing and why.

But when Smilla meets the official investigator Mr Ravn (Danish for raven) on the roof, the snow has melted and taken the tracks with it. The vanished evidence captures the essence of the book, which is about the ephemeral nature of identity and kinship. Smilla’s mother, long disappeared, was an Inuit — an inhabitant of Greenland, which Denmark took as a colony in 1814 and claimed as sovereign territory in 1953. Greenlanders, living in a land very different from the rolling pastures of Denmark, naturally resented being ruled from afar. Denmark responded to their grievances with the usual heavy hand. Greenlanders transplanted to Denmark suffer a profound dislocation of self and respond the way people do in this situation: with depression and despair. Their identity, based as it is on traditions which have developed amongst the icepacks and glaciers of the north, melts like snow in the sun when exposed to the norms of a country famous for inventing the ultimate brick: lego. As Smilla explains, there are no prisons on Greenland. Crimes are punished with fines or acts of penance. For a Greenlander, raised in a landscape which shifts constantly as the snow falls, drifts and melts, Hell takes the form of a locked room.

In this quote, Smilla describes her reaction in trying to describe what she has seen to Ravn, the investigator.

Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try to explain music in writing.

'Snow' by Orhan Pamuk

The Turkish word for snow is kar. In the north of Turkey lies the province of Kars, a mountainous region where the main form of employment is herding sheep, and the border with neighboring Armenia has been closed since 1993. In the capital city, also named Kars, the average winter temperature stays below freezing from December to March. Pamuk’s novel strands a Turkish poet in the city, trapped by a three day snowstorm. He’s there on a visit from his expat life in Frankfurt, ostensibly to research a spate of suicides by teen girls in the city, but actually to reconnect with a former love.

Turkey, often held up as the poster-child for a modern secular Islamic state, still strives to reconcile religious and ethnic tensions, sometimes unsuccessfully. Twenty percent of the population of Kars are Kurdish — a stateless group who end up persecuted and marginalized more or less anywhere they happen to live (in 1983, Saddam Hussein’s regime used nerve gas to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja). Ka, the poet, uncovers a city trapped in a struggle between secularism and religious fundamentalism. The girls began their suicide campaign when expelled from school for wearing headscarves. Their deaths protest the right to cover themselves from view, or so some claim. As the snow falls, heavier and heavier, Ka discovers that everyone in Kars has an opinion about the deaths, that on the subject of religious freedom, no one is allowed to take a neutral stand. Snowed in by conflicting viewpoints, the city grinds to a halt, yet paradoxically Ka finds his inner voice released, forced by immobility to start writing poetry again, a collection he calls Snow that he plans to publish in the form of a snowflake. The volume disappears and when Pamuk as narrator attempts to reconstruct them years later by talking to those Ka visited in the city, he finds the poems’ meaning has vanished.

In 2006,  two years after the English translation of Snow was published, Pamuk received the Nobel prize for literature and the Turkish government abruptly terminated a court case against the author for ‘insulting Turkishness’. In Pamuk’s bestselling work, snow represents the dead weight of dogma: choking discourse, restricting freedom and driving those trapped by it to acts of explosive violence.

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.

'The Snow Child' by Eowyn Ivey

The third in this geographically diverse trio of books is set in Alaska, America’s coldest frontier, the place where the land of the free meets the land of the gulag. The Snow Child takes as its starting point a Russian fairytale — Snegurotcka — about a maiden made of snow, who comes to life only to melt when she falls in love. Popular for many years in Russia, where it has inspired plays, a ballet, an opera and several films, Ivey’s debut gives the story not only a new setting, but an expanded treatment. Jack and Mabel, a couple nearing middle age, move to Alaska seeking one last reinvigorating challenge. They start a farm, but life on the 1920s frontier proves tougher than either of them expected. One evening, almost as a last ditch attempt to distract themselves from the looming and all-too-real prospect of having to choose between selling up and starvation, they build a girl made of snow.

In the morning, the snow girl is gone. In her place comes Faina, a real child, who visits sporadically, disappears in the spring to return when the nights grow longer, who grows and develops like a human, but who seems to possess a supernatural resistance to the cold. Ivey’s debut, nommed for a Pulitzer in 2013, weaves together fable and homestead tale to produce a story as light as a snowflake. Jack and Mabel are solidly real — you can hear the wooden boards of their cabin creak beneath their feet — but Faina, who might be no more than a feral child, despite her uncanny survival skills, skims through the story like an icy sprite with grass and moss in her white-blonde hair. Ivey’s book is founded on the premise that we all need a little magic in our lives: a touch of the inexplicable, a sense that something mystical lingers in the darkness between the trees. It’s a quality we often find in nature, in the landscapes which dwarf us and reduce us to our proper size. In The Snow Child, snow is the wild beyond the safety of the lamp’s light. Snow is the reminder that eventually nothing will remain of us. Snow is the touch of enchantment which gets us through the winter nights.

She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?

And here’s one final sobering thought: read about snow while you can. Enjoy it while you can. If the trajectory of global warming continues and the world becomes a warmer place, in future times snow might become no more than a story we tell our grandchildren.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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