A review of Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au
In a busy street outside a station in Tokyo, the ground is ‘not asphalt, but a series of small, square tiles, if you cared enough to notice’. So we are informed by the narrator of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, in an opening passage that contains the beating heart of this small yet wondrous novel – if we care enough to notice, that is. This is not the essential line – that comes just beforehand, in the form of our narrator’s observation of her mother: ‘[she] stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart’ – yet the tiled street is characteristic of Au’s singular ability to note small, seemingly insignificant details and weave them in to the deeper fabric of her story. Enmeshing the everyday and the extraordinary, the banalities and profound emotional experiences that coexist to create a life, this slight and unassuming novel is a moving exploration of memory, language and parent–child relationships that deserves to be read as much for its use of words as for the weighty themes it encompasses.
On a trip to Japan, a mother and daughter attempt – without ever discussing it – to come closer to one another, to spool in some of the threads that keep them bound to each other yet a considerable distance apart. The daughter, our narrator, has painstakingly planned the holiday to a country she has visited before, though under different circumstances: she thus experiences a steadily waning sense of familiarity with Japan that mirrors how she feels about her mother, a figure who remains fixed in her mind as she was in her childhood but, occasionally, when seen as she really is, seems far more like a stranger. This sense of half-recognition echoes again in an anecdote concerning the narrator’s sister, about visits she made to Hong Kong first as a child and then as a young woman – one of the many textual layerings Au has built into her novel. This slow building up of a theme comes eventually to ask questions about identity: who do we become as we grow older, how are place and memory so irrevocably intertwined, and how can we share the deepest of bonds yet never truly know another’s mind?
It is a marvel that Cold Enough for Snow should ask so much of its reader when, on the face of things, very little happens. The action is gentle in the extreme, composed of keen yet tenderly made observations: the mother’s fastidious dress sense, the care she takes choosing presents, the placement of a red string tying a paper gift bag. In Tokyo, Kyoto and a couple of small towns in between, the narrator and her mother visit bookshops, cafés and art galleries, with most of the scenes set in one of these venues, a hotel room or a canal-side street. The atmosphere is somewhat rarefied, in keeping with Au’s meticulously elegant prose, itself reflected beautifully in a description of a restaurant the narrator once worked in, which was imbued with ‘a certain sense of weight and precision, as if to create a floating world’. Language, it proves, is everything in this novel, each word chosen for its exact heft and ability to combine with others in crafting an often ambiguous meaning.
For as much as the narrator is a sharp-eyed observer of the world through which she moves, this is a novel that is ultimately about an unbridgeable distance between two people – mother and daughter, but also, perhaps, one’s older and younger selves. Not only is the reader kept deliberately at arm’s length by scenes that disappear half-finished into the next, or curious stories with endings left open, but the narrator herself seems to hover on the verge of her life, paying minute attention to but never quite understanding what is before her. Occasionally, the novel threatens to tip into the horrifying or the absurd: arriving back at the hotel later than anticipated following a solo walk, the narrator is informed that her mother was never even there with her; the detailed memory of a story about her uncle turns out to be a false memory, lifted perhaps from a soap opera. Cases like these are usually at least partly resolved, the plot nestling back into the real world, yet they leave the reader with an unsettling sense of not-knowing, of uncertainty about what it is that really matters in this story.
The fragmented structure of the novel serves to further compound this, with memories and present-day narration bleeding into one another – a comment, again not explicit, on how the past informs each day we live through. The importance of memory in shaping people feeds into another short but significant line: ‘parents were their children’s fate’, muses our narrator, who is herself considering having children, causing the reader to take pause and wonder whether this is a comfort or a curse to her. There has shimmered throughout the novel a sense that the mother, not the daughter, is in fact the main protagonist. Though never given a voice of her own except in snatches of conversation, we encounter in her a woman who treads lightly, yet has considerable presence on the page – and, despite the distance between them, in the narrator’s life.
With surprising depths for its slender build, Cold Enough for Snow has an ineffable, haunting quality that makes it a profound experience to read. At times, it could be longer – it seems to exist too quietly in the world – yet the half-finished nature of so many of its scenes is part of its magic, integral to the message it seems to be imparting. A joy to read with its luminous, graceful prose, it is a novel about peripheral experiences that somehow goes straight to the heart.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au won the inaugural Novel Prize and is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, New Directions in the USA, and Giramondo in Australia/New Zealand. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.