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Tag: magical realism

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian folk tale of an elderly couple who, unable to have children, used snow to form a girl who then comes to life. This novel takes place in 1920s Alaska instead of Russia, and the “elderly” couple, Mabel and Jack, are about fifty years old. Ten years have passed since Mabel gave birth to a still-born child in Pennsylvania, and her grief, and the loneliness she feels at family gatherings full of children, caused her to persuade Jack to try homesteading in Alaska.

The book starts during their second winter on the banks of the Wolverine River (apparently a fictional river). Mabel is so desperately depressed and lonely that she risks death by walking across the river on ice that she knows is too thin. Miraculously, she survives. Shortly after, during the first snowfall, she and Jack playfully build a girl of snow, even giving her mittens and a scarf. The next morning the snow girl has been destroyed, but small footsteps lead away from it. Mabel and Jack begin to see a blonde-haired girl near their home who seems to be wearing the mittens and scarf that they put on the snow girl.

The girl, Faina, seems to have mysterious powers: she can create storms, and she manages to help Mabel and Jack survive the winter, despite their precarious finances. She seems to have unlimited endurance and a preference for cold weather. On the other hand, she is very human in many ways. It is unclear to Jack and Mabel who, exactly, Faina is. She can speak, but whenever characters have a conversation with her, no quote marks are used, so I wasn’t sure if they were actually speaking out loud, or communicating silently.

I’ve never been to Alaska, but Ivey’s descriptions of the Alaska wilderness brought the setting alive in all its icy splendor. I was captivated not only by the fascinating mystery of Faina, but also by the well-drawn characters of Mabel, Jack, and a family with whom they become close friends. The Snow Child was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. A musical based on the book premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in the spring of 2018. The graphic above is from the web site of Georgia Stitt, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I kept hearing what a great book Life After Life was, but at first I found it confusing because of the sudden shifts in time and place. It took me three tries to settle into this book, and I’m so glad I stuck with it. Life After Life is an unusual, gripping, thought-provoking book.

The book begins in 1930 in Germany. A young Englishwoman sits at a café table with Adolf Hitler, before his rise to infamy. She eats a dessert, pulls out a gun, and shoots at Hitler as his companions take aim at her. Then “darkness fell,” a recurring refrain in the book.

It turns out that Ursula Todd has the strange ability to re-live her life over and over again. After she presumably dies in Germany while attempting to assassinate Hitler, she is born in 1910 in the English countryside. She dies immediately. She is also saved from death. She dies and is revived again and again in the book, and relives her life in slightly changing form each time. She is only dimly aware of this, and is in fact sent to a psychiatrist because of her strange thoughts about the past and future. “Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes,” she thinks at one point (p. 153).

The driving question in the book is, how does an average English young woman get to the point of trying to assassinate Hitler? Author Kate Atkinson has created a set of vivid, engaging characters who surround Ursula as she lives through World War I and World War II. Another interesting aspect is the puzzle of her many lives. Atkinson has somehow managed to make Ursula’s changing storyline understandable.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the ending (plenty of fodder for a book club discussion). Atkinson has written a sequel, A God in Ruins, which follows the story of Ursula’s beloved brother Teddy.

For more information about Kate Atkinson, check out her web site, from which I copied the above author photo.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was inspired by the story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own child when she and her family were about to be recaptured by slave-hunters. In an interview in the New York Times, Morrison says that while she became fascinated by Garner’s story, she also wanted to be free to create the character herself. ”Now I didn’t do any more research at all about that story. I did a lot of research about everything else in the book—Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the underground railroad—but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life.”

Beloved seeks to answer the question: what would drive a woman to kill her own child? And what would her life be like afterwards?

The story starts about 18 years after the killing. Sethe, the mother, lives with one surviving daughter, Denver, in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. A guest arrives—a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where they both had lived. Paul D. is astonished that Sethe’s house is apparently haunted: a red light appears from nowhere, and the house shakes, tossing furniture into the air. Paul D. manages to exorcise the ghost.

Soon after, a new visitor arrives at the house: a mysterious young woman who cannot tell them where she is from. She says only that her name is “Beloved.” This word is the only one Sethe had managed to get engraved on her dead daughter’s headstone, and it soon becomes apparent that the young woman is indeed the dead daughter come back.

The backstory comes out in fits and starts: the new, cruel overseer of Sweet Home, who spurred the slaves to escape; the separation of the slaves as their plans unraveled; the journey of the pregnant Sethe across the Ohio River to Cincinnati; and the event that caused her to murder her daughter and attempt to kill her other children.

The timeline of this novel is not linear, perhaps to reflect Sethe’s state of mind: she lives in the past with the crime she has committed, as well as in the present. Although clearly set in 1873, the story seems timeless, and the tense shifts occasionally from past to present. The point of view also shifts: from omniscient, to third person (Sethe, or Paul D., or Denver) to first person (Sethe’s inner thoughts).

Mystery is worked into the novel in a matter-of-fact way. Here is the first appearance of the being that calls herself Beloved:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim of her straw hat. . . . Nobody saw her emerge or came accidentally by. If they had, chances are they would have hesitated before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling.

Reading Morrison’s novel Beloved is a challenging but rewarding experience.

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

I first read Eva Moves the Furniture when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it then, and the characters stayed with me through the years. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it even more.

The novel begins in Scotland in 1920, with the birth of Eva and with her mother’s death. As a small child living a placid rural life with her elderly father and her aunt, Eva realizes that she has two companions that only she can see: a teenaged girl and an older woman. These mysterious figures are usually helpful to her, but also embarrassing in that they make her feel different from other people. They follow her as she enters nursing school in nearby Glasgow, and as she takes her first job as a nurse. The title refers to the fact that these companions sometimes re-arranged furniture and objects in Eva’s room.

The identity of the companions is revealed gradually, as Eva learns more about life and the world beyond death. Yet their mystery is not the focus of this novel. Instead, their presence is simply a fact of life for Eva, and we come to accept them as she does. World War II begins, and in the process of helping patients who have been severely injured, she matures and her understanding deepens. The novel is an unfolding of Eva’s discovery of herself as she goes out into the world.

Eva Moves the Furniture is told in first person, from Eva’s perspective, and it is only later in the book that we realize she has been telling the story to one particular person all along. The novel is based on the life of the author’s mother.

My one minor complaint is that the novel starts with half a page about an Italian surgeon in Africa. This tidbit is tangentially related to a certain character in the book—but only if you squint and look sideways—and I am still puzzled by its prominence on the first page of this book.

Other than that, this gentle novel is full of beauty, truth, and emotion.