'Magical, but not fey,' say my notes on Eowyn Ivey's debut novel The Snow Child, one of my books of the year last year (I read it very late on) and now one of Waterstones' 11. It's a re-telling of the folktale of Snegurochka, set in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s, and though elements of the story are other-worldly, its feet are firmly on the iron-hard ground of that beautiful but unforgiving environment, a place which tested the mettle of all who made a home there.
Jack and Mabel have left behind a more comfortable life in Pennsylvania to settle in the far north west of the United States. Expecting a land of plenty, they have found "a different truth. Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man's struggle ...", and as they build an isolated homestead and attempt to clear and cultivate their acres, their dream of a fresh start is fading in the harsh light of reality.
Along with the gruelling physical challenge of life "at the world's edge", the couple have grief to bear, their loss of a child many years before never far from their thoughts, colouring their mood and sapping their strength. Just when they feel bowed by all that besets them, the first snow fall of the winter unaccountably lifts their spirits, and in a moment's childlike spontaneity they find themselves building a snow figure - a little girl - and dressing her in scarf and mittens. In the morning there is no trace of the figure or her woollens, but there are tracks in the snow - the footprints of a small child.
What happens then I shall leave you to find out for yourself, but I found this a truly enchanting story and one I was very sorry to leave. Eowyn evokes beautifully the chill of the winter landscape, the darkness and feelings of desolation lifted at first by a candle-flicker of warmth and light caused by the strange events of that snowy night and the days that follow, and then by the slow flowering of love which finds an object and becomes a beacon.
Magical, tender, hopeful and sad, its themes of love and loss and longing are as relevant to real life as to myth and legend; if only - as Mabel's sister writes to her on the subject of Arthur Ransome's study of the folk tales of the far north - we could "invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow".