Snow by Marcus Sedgwick

Reviewed by Annabel

snowSnow is the latest addition to small indie publisher Little Toller’s series of ‘monographs’. These smart little hardbacks are dedicated to writing ‘attuned to the natural world,’ (see previous reviews here: Mermaids; Herbaceous).

Marcus Sedgwick is one of my favourite authors. He’s prolific, writing books for all ages as well as making forays into illustration and graphic novels. (I reviewed his novel The Ghosts of Heaven for Shiny here.) One thing that many of Sedgwick’s novels have in common is northern snowy climes, from his fictionalised tale of Arthur Ransome’s adventures in Russia in Blood Red, Snow White to the Arctic gold rush in thriller Revolver – both wonderful novels by the way. Sedgwick travelled to these locations to do his research and started to become obsessed by snow.

Then he moved from UK fenland to a chalet in the Haute-Savoie, on the edge of the French alps and has adapted his life to living with snow for months of the year. This new life forms the frame around which he builds the six chapters of this book which look at sayings, art, myths and legends, literature, exploration and science of the cold white stuff – one for each side of a snowflake.

We start by looking at how snow features in our language – and first he debunks ‘The Great Eskimo Language Hoax’ that there are fifty words for snow a little, concluding:

The idea that the Inuit have 50 words for snow is an idea we want to be true, it will probably never die, and it expresses a truth, even if it itself is false.

Indeed, many of the snow words in English dictionaries are very old or foreign in origin: graupel – German, firn – Old English, névé – French, for instance are our words for different types of granular snow.

We move on to look at just a little of the science of snow, and how we tend to oversimplify a very complicated material capable of having different properties in different frozen states:

Anyone of my age and nationality will remember the condescension and sneers that greeted Britain’s national rail country when they announced that trains were delayed because there was ‘the wrong kind of snow’ on the tracks. Except that’s not what happened. In fact, British Rail’s Director of Operations stated they were ‘having problems with the type of snow, which is rare in the UK’. In response to which Jim Naughtie, interviewing, replied, ‘Oh, I see, it’s the wrong kind of snow’ and that is the phrase that was adopted in many newspapers and so entered the language as another form of snowclone.

He waxes wistfully about snowy winters in Kent during his childhood, which leads to a brief discussion about climate change that is happening today – they’re seeing warmer and warmer winters in the Haute-Savoie. What will happen if the ice-caps melt, all the methane trapped deep in the Arctic ice is released, and the albedo (the reflectivity of a planetary surface) reduces?

At some point in our future then, there will be no more snow, no more ice. It will exist only in a fake version, in the sterile, indoor playgrounds of the super rich, on ski slopes in hideous shopping malls, reused and artificial snow, like breath that has passed through too many lungs. Real snow – fresh, natural, ephemeral and almost supernatural – that will be gone.

Snow is a potent component of art and literature and Sedgwick takes us through a personal selection from Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow, through Müller’s poem Winterreise transformed into Schubert’s song cycle to Mann’s Magic Mountain and on, to Stephen King’s Overlook hotel – the location for The Shining.

The chapter Exposure briefly touches on the golden age of Arctic and Antarctic exploration – its heroes, successes and failures and the pull they still have on us today. Myths and legends are also full of snow, and in Snow Queens Sedgwick takes us through some icy fairy and folk tales – many of his own novels are influenced by them. He also compares Andersen’s Snow Queen with C.S.Lewis’s Jadis from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The final chapter discusses the transformative power of snow. He envisages its potential threat, avalanche dangers – and the correlation with a writer’s blank page and how difficult it is to get started. But he also urges us to remember the childhood joy of there being nothing better than to be the first person to enter a fresh drift.

In this little book, Sedgwick demonstrates his profound respect for snow and real concern for the environment, alongside that childhood glee and never-ending wonder at its dangerous beauty. Full of wonderful writing, personal notes, quotations and references, Snow is a fantastic addition to this series of books (and one to add to your Christmas wishlist perhaps!)

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – and wishes it would snow more in Oxfordshire.

Marcus Sedgwick, Snow (Little Toller, 2016). 978-1908213402,  136 pp., hardback.

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