The Snow Line by Tessa McWatt

Reviewed by Harriet

A disparate group of four total strangers meet at a wedding in the Punjab, India. Three of them are young and of Indian heritage; the fourth is Jackson, an 86-year-old white man who lived in India many years earlier. Jackson has a reason for coming to India – he has recently lost his beloved wife Amelia and is bringing her ashes to scatter in some suitable place in the country they both loved. He doesn’t really know where that place will be. This will be the story of their final destination.

It’s clear that each of the other three protagonists has a reason for struggling with their Indian identity. Yosh has reluctantly left his successful yoga teaching practice in Vancouver to return to the country he vowed never to revisit when he left five years ago. His father has made a fortune, but in India the family is classed as untouchable, which makes Yosh very uncomfortable. ‘Dalit people like my family can be rich now’, he says, ‘My father built a shoe company thanks to economic reforms. He lives in Delhi. People love him for his money, but he can’t sleep without getting drunk every night’. Monica lives in Toronto, ‘the kind of Indian cousin unused to chaos, for whom Delhi is a shock’. She sounds fully Canadian, ‘her ancestors’ caste long dissolved in her education and dreams to succeed’. And then there’s Reema. Born in India to a half-English father and an Indian mother, she has lived in London since she was a baby, so she looks Indian but sounds English. As soon as she arrives, ‘she searches for her Indianness: something that might be bred in bone, or skin, or song’,  but her attempts to fit in by throwing in the odd ‘Aacha’ make her self conscious. Meanwhile she’s struggling with private personal dilemmas – her Scottish boyfriend keeps sending text messages but she hasn’t told him she’s pregnant and isn’t at all sure if she wants to keep the baby, or to stay with its father.

It’s Reema who will help Jackson search for Amelia’s final resting place, but she does so rather unwillingly. He’s a very old man, and she can’t help being over-conscious of his ageing body, as indeed he is himself, but ‘old white men must be pitied’, as she tells herself. However,  she has another reason for avoiding getting too involved with him: as a younger man he was in India as a hydraulic engineer, and partly responsible for the reservoir which flooded a valley, causing thousands of people to be ‘ousted’, including her mother’s parents. She doesn’t tell this to Jackson, and in spite of her doubts finds herself suggesting to the old man that he might join her and her friends on a journey to the north. Jackson at once starts to envisage the Himalayas as a perfect resting place for Amelia. His wife loved the snow, and he remembers what she said once on a skiing holiday:

‘We could lie down here and sleep. It would be one way to go before the indignities began. Freezing and drowning are supposed to be the easiest, and they’d only find us when the snow melted’. When he laughed and agreed with her, it felt like a pact, which was as much of one they’d  ever had on the subject. So why not take her to the snow and then just lie down and be done with it.

And so the four of them head north, heading for Dharamsala. They can see the snowy peaks of the Himalayas in the distance, but they seem like a long way away. Jackson is willing, but the journey is tough and hard on him. Will he be able to make it all the way?

In itself this is an excellent story, but it’s the way it’s told that makes the novel stand out. Part of the time we’re in the mind of Reema, participating in her memories of growing up in a country she feels both part of and alien from, and in her struggles to know what to do about a relationship that seems to have lost its shine. And then there’s what’s going on in the mind of Jackson, who, as the novel goes on, is living more and more in his memories of his wife and their life together.  She’s always in his thoughts, and he’s engaged in an ongoing silent conversation with her, but the faster the memories come, the more unsure he becomes. Did she really love India as much as he did? How well did he really know her? And then what of his own relationship with the country he’s always loved? An awkward situation arises when he’s party to a conversation about the new court case being brought against the constructors of the reservoir: ‘there are a hundred thousand claimants’…’without electricity water’:

‘Sometimes these things can’t be helped’, Jackson says. But he sees this has come out wrong.

‘So you say’, Yosh says as he leans slightly back.

Then there’s his recurring memory of a scene he once witnessed in an alley in some unspecified Indian town – a group of men surround a young woman, threatening her, getting ready to rape her, Jackson paralysed and unable to intervene. As time goes on, these memories – what he calls borderless moments – get stronger and stronger, and his grip on the present correspondingly weaker. And finally – well you’ll have to read this beautiful, subtle, keenly observed novel to see how things develop in the end.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Tessa McWatt, The Snow Line (Scribe, 2021). 978-1911617952, 256pp., hardback.

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