This book was lent to me by one of my students with a strong recommendation – and she mentioned there was a slight fantasy spin on it, which piqued my interest. It’s ideal summer reading as a foil to the heatwave we’re experiencing right now…
Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding – is she what she seems?
I have to confess I was concerned this would be one of those books long on literary descriptions and agonised self-examination at the expense of plot and action. But I needn’t have worried. The main protagonist is Mabel, and as the story unfurls, it is far grittier than it first seems. The descriptions of Alaska are wonderful – but this isn’t some soft-focused, tender evocation of a lost wilderness, although that is part of the package. However, it also is a grinding struggle for survival in an environment that takes no prisoners – those living there cannot afford any squeamishness and need to be physically and mentally tough.
Mabel nearly buckles during their second winter, while Jack is bowed by the weight of trying to establish his smallholding when past his physical prime. And then, one snowy night they build a small girl snowman after Mabel reads the Russian tale – and in the morning find that the mittens and hat they’d decorated it with are gone. And a pale-haired child is wearing them…
Is this some fantastic fairy tale come true? Ivey takes some time to answer that question – in the meantime, the child’s appearance in their lives changes Jack and Mabel, as does their growing relationship with their nearest neighbours. It took a couple of chapters, but once I became used to the pacing and relaxed into Ivey’s polished, straightforward prose, this book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until the last chapter – which was a bittersweet shock.
It’s one of those books where you are left to make up your mind as to exactly what happened – which left me with a lump in my throat… It certainly isn’t a book I’m going to forget in a hurry and if you like unusual, unsentimental books that give a pitch perfect evocation of time and place, then track this down. It is beautiful, engrossing and left me with a complicated range of feelings that I only normally experience when watching my grandchildren play.