Are you one of those organized souls who draws up a plan of action and then actually follows it? Or are you, like me, a child of spontaneity, someone who prefers to meet on an ad hoc basis whatever life throws her way? Fear not, gentle reader, that I’m going to ramble off on a comparison of differing life philosophies; rather, I’m merely trying to explain to myself just how my review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Woods morphed into a post about Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow! Blame it on the publisher!
As I’ve probably remarked in the past, part of my bookish self-indulgence during the pandemic included a subscription to the New Classics Club run by New Direction press, which gives me a monthly “surprise” book selected by the editors from the latest additions to their catalogue. February’s selection, Ms. Au’s Snow, arrived just as I was getting ready for a teeny little break from Gibbons’ charming but quite lengthy 1930s period piece. Even before receiving my copy, however, I had noticed Au’s novel on the New Directions website and thought it sounded intriguing. What could I do when fate literally placed in in my hands with last Friday’s mail? Cold Enough For Snow is brief, really more a novella than a novel, clocking in at a mere ninety-five pages; I always prefer reading to writing, so wasn’t it quite natural to just skim a few pages while I took a break from Stella Gibbons? It’s pretty clear where this is going, isn’t it? After my experience with novels by Fleur Jaeggy and Dag Solstad, I suppose that I was a little naive in thinking that a skinny little novel would be more straightforward than one with a heftier page count, for I shortly discovered that Ms Au’s brief novel punches far above its weight. In short, it’s been adieu, Nightingale Woods, at least for a few days while I gather my thoughts on this very interesting piece of avant-garde fiction.
This is my first encounter with Jessica Au, an Australian writer currently based in Melbourne. Snow is her second novel; her debut, Cargo, was published by Picador in 2011 when Au was a mere twenty-five years old. Snow won the Novel Prize, a biennial competition open to writers (published & unpublished) around the world; the prize recognizes works of literary fiction, written in English, “which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.” I thought it worth quoting from the Prize’s criteria, as it gives you quite an accurate idea of Au’s novel, which was selected from over 1500 entries. Three international publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.), Giramondo Press (Australia) and New Directions (U.S.) jointly sponsor the competition, which gives a cash award ($10,000 U.S.) and ensures the simultaneous publication of the winning entry in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and North America.
The plot of Au’s novel is very simple. It begins in the Tokyo airport, where a woman waits for her mother’s plane to arrive before the two begin a trip that she has carefully orchestrated through Japan. Au never tells us the name of either character. We quickly learn that the trip is important to the daughter “for reasons she could not yet name” and that her mother had initially refused to come, reluctantly succumbing only after being “pushed.” The two no longer live in the same city; we learn later that the daughter in fact has never seen the apartment into which her mother has moved. From the opening paragraphs Au requires the reader to be actively engaged in piecing together her story. Au tells us that the mother’s suitcase seems “almost new,” even though the daughter remembers it from her childhood, when her mother had “brought it down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like for when her father died, and then her brother.” (page 2) It is the reader who fleshes out the narrative by inferring that the mother has seldom traveled since her long-ago emigration from Hong Kong to a western country, where her daughters have grown up, and that she had few close relatives or ties strong enough to draw her back to Hong Kong. This is a very simple example of Au’s subtle and ambiguous narrative technique. As the novel progresses, the interactions between the mother and daughter become more opaque and the reader is given fewer, and much more subtle, clues as to their motivation and meaning. Although Au’s style is a world apart from that of Henry James, I find her narrative technique to be reminiscent of James’ in his late novels. For both these very different artists what is unsaid between the characters can be more important than what is verbalized; both writers require the reader to participate actively in their art.
One striking aspect of Snow is that the daughter narrates the entire novel, meaning that we see the characters’ interactions entirely from her point of view. Conversations and the mother’s remarks are recounted solely by the daughter, who speaks directly to the reader:
I had chosen Japan because I had been there before, and although my mother had not, I thought she might be more at ease exploring another part of Asia. And perhaps I felt this would put us on equal footing in some way, to both be made strangers. I had decided on autumn, because it had always been our favorite season. The gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful then; the late season, everything almost gone. I had not anticipated that it might still be a time for typhoons. Already * * * it had been raining steadily since our arrival.
In the days that follow their arrival in Tokyo the two visit museums, temples and art galleries that the daughter has chosen, stay at inns that the daughter has booked and eat at restaurants that the daughter has selected. And all the time she is probing, probing for her mother’s reaction to what they are experiencing or to episodes from the past. She clearly wants something from her interaction with her mother, but what and why is a mystery. The rain, “a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October,” is omnipresent; almost as much of a character as the mother herself, it lends a haunting quality to a novel that is peopled with specters. Weaving backwards and forwards in time, we learn about the narrator’s absent sister and her family; that dead uncle in Hong Kong; the past events that shaped the narrator’s personality; and Laurie, the narrator’s great love (is he her husband? I don’t think this is ever made clear) and her companion on her previous trip to Japan. Sister, uncle, lover — physically absent, their presence haunts the narration. Equally vivid are the absences. The narrator’s father is never mentioned, nor is the reason for this particular trip at this particular time.
It’s possible to enjoy Snow on many levels. At the most superficial, there is the sheer beauty of the language and the spare but gorgeous descriptions of the country through which the two women travel. Au writes with great vividness about the physical aspect of the women’s trip — the museums they visit, the temples they see, the ordinary life that they observe around them. Her unnamed narrator has an incredible feeling for art and the ability to convey what she is experiencing simply and elegantly. Despite the distance created by keeping her characters nameless, Au’s story contains real emotion. There was, here and there, a sentence that stabbed me to the heart, as when the narrator envisions the time when she and her sister will go to their mother’s apartment, the one she has never seen, “with the single task of sorting through a lifetime of possessions, packing everything away,” knowing that “whether out of too much, or too little sentiment,” she would keep nothing (page 78). At another earlier point in the novel, the daughter actually seems to be remembering (page 5), rather than anticipating, a time when she and her sister “were cleaning everything out of” her mother’s flat, an obvious duty that we survivors perform for our dead.
And what of a deeper meaning, beyond these surface levels? Each reader will no doubt draw different conclusions from this subtle and enigmatic story. The novel certainly speaks at least in part to the nature of memory, of how the impressions and sensations that form identity may, or may not, be true or at least factually accurate. In one of the novel’s most beautiful (if sentimental) sections the narrator recalls a story of her dead uncle in Hong Kong, of the great love affair he had as a young man, a story that was repeatedly told to her as a child. When, years later and now an adult questioning her mother about it, her mother denies such a thing ever happened and her sister also has no memory of it.
Even more than the mysteries of memory, however, I think Au is telling us that it’s impossible to know another person through intellectual analysis or objective facts. As a young woman the daughter was fiercely intellectual, consumed by “the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything.” (page 29). Her mother by contrast (page 57) believed that people were too “hungry to know everything,” mistakenly thinking they “could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner;” that understanding lessened no pain and that “the best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches.” As their time together draws to a close, the daughter thinks that “the trip had not done what I wanted it to,” while her mother smiles “as if she were simply happy that we were in each other’s company, and to have no need for words.” (page 88) Perhaps Au is suggesting that this wordless contentment in each other’s company is enough; that in the end we will each remain a mystery to others.
Towards the close of the novel, after the two women have left Tokyo, an incident occurs that casts some doubt on my entire understanding of the daughter’s trip. To discuss it further would be a bit of a spoiler (besides, you might not agree with me!) so I’ll say no more about it here. I can’t resist remarking, however, that it very strongly reminded me of one aspect of A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a beautiful French novella (that also takes place in autumn) that was beautifully reviewed last summer by Jacquiwine.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, Cold Enough For Snow was published by New Directions, an independent publisher based in New York City that was founded in 1936 by a twenty-two year old James Laughlin, when he was told by Ezra Pound that his poetry was “hopeless,” and that he should finish Harvard and do something “useful” (publisher’s website). New Directions publishes works in a variety of genres and from countries around the world; its list of authors includes Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges, William Carlos Williams and many others. As an independent publisher, Au’s novel qualifies for Kaggsy’s and Lizzie’s 2022 #ReadIndies event.