The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham, book review

 

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The Snow Queen begins with the promise of greatness and the exciting prospect, in our current climate, of spiritual phenomena being explored seriously: “A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” It is modern-day Brooklyn. Barrett is gay and unfortunate in love. His brother Tyler, with whom he has an unusually close relationship, is trying to write a song to save his dying girlfriend Beth. Beth recovers from cancer – the Snow Queen’s kingdom – miraculously, only to succumb three months later and die.

It is unusual for a contemporary novel to align itself so overtly with a fairytale but Cunningham’s novel does, the references to frozen lakes, sleepers, underworlds, journeys, captivity, ‘cinder’s caught in people’s eyes, and snow (characters dream, write songs about, walk in, liken drugs and memories to snow) intruding obsessively. The overall parallel to Andersen’s fable is muddy however, single elements endowed with both malevolent and benevolent significance, characters taking the role of child rescuer, child captive and Snow Queen simultaneously. Initially the main disappointment was that I wanted the book to be about Barrett, who is introduced to us at the opening, but soon takes a back seat to Tyler. Then I found the characterization, though possibly sophisticated, too convoluted: both Barrett, Tyler and Beth, at various times, wish Beth was well, ill, dead and alive. Then there were just too many interchanges that didn’t ring true: Tyler’s rage that Barrett did not tell him about the light, Barrett’s desire to keep it secret, the just plain weird childhood interactions with their mother. Characters exist in some rarefied, high-Modernist atmosphere, sit in bathtubs while an all-important Woolfian window stands open (to glacial weather), discussing their dreams “as if they [are] scientists, taking notes”, spend all night taking drugs then emerge onto rooftops in snowstorms to ponder moments when they “were able to hold [their] very being in…outstretched hands and say, here I am…”, supposedly have money worries but sit around writing songs,”‘stand for a moment in…doorway[‘s] rectangle[s] of snowy light…appear[ing] to wonder, briefly, at the fact that [they’re] there at all”. The description of Beth’s illness is repellant: cancer is not about “white do-rag[s] wrapped with exquisite carelessness around…hairless heads” and descents into beautiful though ghostly kingdoms, but very real suffering.

Cunningham’s prose, though stylish, begins to feel as stuck as Tyler’s song. When you have read enough sentences such as: “Barrett, bluff-chested, naked in greying water, is in particular possession of his pink-white, grandly mortified glow” you begin to long for the directness, simplicity and power of a Coetzee. “I’m not trying to be profound, or anything,” Barrett remarks at one point, and found myself wishing his creator had taken a leaf out of his book. The whole thing begins to seem unnecessary – as does Barrett’s initial vision, which intrudes into unrelated conversations with all the weirdness, pointlessness and implausibility of a U.F.O.

Perhaps Cunningham does manage to dramatise the way hope leads to devastation and devastation hope (one of the possible themes, the two words described as “the same thing”’), perhaps he does manage to dramatise recognition and apprehension, but if he does it was lost on me. There are too many meanings, centres, gleaming nubs. Towards the end of the novel the character Barrett confided his sighting of the light to tells him he too has seen it then asks Barrett for money. By this point, if Barrett feels cheated, so does the reader. “What, then…was the annunciation?” Barrett wonders at one point; readers of The Snow Queen – if they make it that far - will do no less.

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