all those who are seen and unseen.
I’ve just finished Jessica Au’s novel, Cold Enough for Snow, which won the inaugural Novel Prize run by London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions, Australian press Giramondo, and New York’s New Directions. To touch on what I wrote about in my last newsletter, I was particularly impressed Au’s novel, coming in at a slender 144 pages, was chosen over something ‘beefier’ in terms of length. Of course, it’s slight stature is also the premise for many of the negative Goodreads reviews I happened upon.
Cold Enough for Snow is a richly textured novel filled with subtle and almost soothing impressions of a mother and daughter's trip to Japan. It has been compared to Rachel Cusk’s writing as the narrative is less about plot or character and more focused on observations and conversions following a stream-of-consciousness approach. The narrator also has an aloofness about her that makes you wonder why she embarked on this trip in the first place, though it seems to hold some immense power over her.
There is a certain veiled vagueness to the nameless people and places, the things intentionally left out — there is much unseen and much left unsaid. There are moments when the timelines cross or when the daughter feels she can’t articulate something to her mother and the reader may wonder if the narrative is questioning the two women’s existence in the tangible sphere.
I wanted for some reason to speak more about the room, and what I had felt in it, that strange keenness. Wasn’t it incredible, I wanted to say… But I found I could not.
It culminates in a moment where, in describing her own writing, the daughter also warns her mother not to trust what she reads. Should the reader heed the same warning?
I said that in this way too, writing was just like painting. It was only in this way that one could go back and change the past, to make things not as they were, but as we wished they had been, or rather as we saw it. I said, for this reason, it was better for her not to trust anything she read.
At another point, the daughter reminisces on a story of her uncle and his first love, a tragic tale that resulted in their parting and his never marrying. She spends many pages recounting it, only to add: “I asked my sister about the story, but she said she could not remember it either.” Later, in Kyoto, the daughter panics, thinking she has lost her mother who is meant to be at the inn. “I asked at reception and the man there said he had not seen her.” Though her mother returns, the physical absence strikes a discordant note. Why isn’t she where I left her? Much of the book is spent in observation or in contemplation of observation and perhaps begs the question: who is truly seen by society or by their family — those who should see us most clearly, sometimes see us not at all.
I was reminded of Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyns, a book I honestly slept on and put off reading, but as soon as I finished last week it I knew it was a forever favorite. The narrator, Sophia, is a young, naïve bohemian who marries an equally naïve starving artist and just hopes for the best — which turns out, unfortunately, to be unplanned motherhood and poverty. Sophia's light, witty voice narrating her tragicomic tale is what drew me immediately in, a completely different tone from Au’s enigmatic prose. However, Sophia also knows the importance of being seen, the absolute need for it.
Peregrine listened most intently to every word I said, as if it was very precious... This had never happened to me before, and gave me great confidence in myself, but now I know from experience a lot of men listen like that, and it doesn’t mean a thing; they are most likely thinking up a new way of getting out of paying their income-tax.
This man, the first one who really listens to her, predictably becomes her lover. When this isn’t enough, she attempts to be seen via her art. Then, as poverty takes a firmer hold, she wonders if anyone will ever really see her again. There is nothing so easily dismissed as a woman, a mother, in the throes of poverty.
In Au’s novel, though she tries to see her own mother, it’s as though she does so through a dense, milky light, as though she’s already a memory. And perhaps she is.
Yet during the trip, I would look at her profile, her face when it was tired or resting, and realise that she was now a grandmother. Then, just as quickly, I would forget this again, seeing only the same image of her as I had throughout my childhood, which was strangely fixed, only to have this broken again some days later.
Alas, my reading was sporadic in February, I’ve been distracted, I put down a lot of things, but these two books were certainly gems. I just received my pre-order of Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima, so I am trying to decide if I should read that or Second Place by Rachel Cusk next. I also have some vacation time coming up and I am already making a book stack of potential airplane reads — love to be trapped with myself and a book in a metal box careening through space.