Reviewed by Claire Boyle
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham is like a snow scene uninterrupted by footprints, beautiful to look at and perfect in its composition. It opens on a winter’s night in Brooklyn in November 2004, before George W. Bush is re-elected and closes on a winter’s day In November 2008, before Barack Obama is elected; these sections are interspersed by two other sections, one set on New Year’s Eve 2006 and another, six pages long, on “a night” the following April.
“A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central, four days after Barrett has been mauled, once again, by love” opens the novel and this celestial light and the effect it has on Barrett, and the supporting characters, is the pervading theme of the separate events, or series of vignettes, in The Snow Queen. It is the search of transcendence by the two Meeks brothers, and the different means each takes to achieve it, that concerns Cunningham. The third-person narrative is told alternately from their points of view of Barrett and Tyler and, to a lesser extent, from the points of view of the women in their lives, Beth, Tyler’s dying wife-to-be, and Liz, Beth’s best friend and business partner in a quirky clothing store. “Barrett has, since the age of fifteen, been, adamantly secular, as only an ex-Catholic can be” but finds religion again after he witnesses the mysterious and, in his opinion, miraculous light, while Tyler turns to, or relies more heavily, on drugs to achieve escape; both are attempting to escape the failures of their lives, Beth’s terminal cancer, and the memory of their deceased and dysfunctional mother. The brothers, now in their forties, bonded over the death of the brother, grew practically inseparable, and each is feeling unfulfilled and looking for love (of a man) in Barrett’s case and creative success in Tyler’s.
Snow plays a key part in the setting and the snow queen of the title refers to the subject of the song Tyler is attempting –and failing- to write for Beth and to Beth herself, who garbs herself in celestial white:
Everything she wants to wear is white, these days. White connotes virginity in some cultures, mourning in others. For Beth, white connotes a form of semi-invisibility, a neither-here-nor there quality, a sense of pause, an un-colour, which apparently feels right to here, as if the assertions implied by colours, or black, would be inappropriate, maybe even impolite.
Beth’s white attire and Barrett’s dark (a green plaid scarf being “his one concession to colour”) stresses the monochrome sense of the novel’s setting: a snowy landscape against a black sky and celestial green light in the sky (which personally I thought throughout was supposed to be a sighting of the Aurora Borealis in New York). It is a very visual novel and has a strong sense of place or place devoid of colour, beautiful in its blank canvas state. What Cunningham hopes to achieve with this cinematic approach, I can’t say, but it does provide an appropriate starkness and juxtaposes the alternating positivity and negativity, optimism and pessimism, of the brothers.
I found the structure of the novel and its use of language exquisite. The strong setting, however, is to the detriment of character development, especially in the first section, where I never fully connected with the brothers or supporting characters. There is almost a coldness to the narrative, like the snow falling through the window of Tyler and Beth’s bedroom window, “Flecks of snow–tough little ice balls, more gray than white in the early morning dimness–swirl onto the floor-boards and the foot of the bed.” However, the more intimate second section, during a New Year’s Eve party in the apartment that Barrett shares with Tyler and Beth in a cosy but platonic ménage à trois, is more revealing and an enthralling set-piece, especially the story Liz tells of her sister, Sarah.
I grew to empathise with Barrett more than I did Tyler but Cunningham depicts their individual conflicts well. The Snow Queen is a beautifully written exploration of human nature and shows that “People are more than you think they are. And they’re less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two. “ In addition to the stylised structure and its book-ending of the run up to two momentous –and consecutive- presidential results and the vivid depiction of New York in the snow, it is the moments of lucidity, those sublime observations of life’s curiosities, that I enjoyed most.
“No one needs to comment on world’s propensity for producing those odd signs of morbidity, the memento mori, that have a way of appearing at precisely the wrong time.”
“Love, it seems, arrives not only announced, but so accidentally, so randomly, as to make you wonder why you, why anyone, believes even fleetingly in laws of cause and effect.”
Read The Snow Queen if you want to read something as gentle and as intricately formed as a snowflake.
Claire used to blog at Paperback Reader and is full of good intentions to resume one day. This may help.
Michael Cunningham, The Snow Queen (Fourth Estate: London, May 2014). 9780007557677, 256pp, hardback.