Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Jessica Au is a new writer to me – clearly an exciting talent on the strength of this book alone. Her beautiful, meditative novella, Cold Enough for Snow, won the inaugural Novel Prize, which seeks to reward novels written in the English language that ‘explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style’. This biennial prize has been set up by three independent publishers working in collaboration: Fitzcarraldo Editions, who publish Au’s book in the UK and Ireland, Giramondo (covering Australasia), and New Directions (for North America).

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, the narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul.

Mother and daughter – both unnamed – travel from separate locations to meet in Tokyo, where the daughter has made all the arrangements for the visit. Interestingly, the novel is narrated by the daughter, so we never hear from the mother directly. Instead, everything we are shown is filtered through the daughter’s perspective, which gives the narrative a particular slant that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds.

Right from the start, there is a strong sense of separateness and isolation surrounding these figures. The trip seems important to the daughter (less so to the mother), although we are never explicitly told why. The two have clearly drifted apart over the years – the daughter now living in Australia with her partner, Laurie, a sculptor, the mother having emigrated from her childhood home in Hong Kong to Australia many years before. Moreover, the mother has recently moved house in Australia to a location close to her other daughter (the narrator’s married sister) and her family. Partly for this reason, there is an air of distance between the narrator and her mother as they walk through the Tokyo streets, hinting perhaps at the gaps that have evolved over time.

All the while, my mother 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. (p. 9)

In Tokyo, the pair walk along the city’s canal paths, visit various museums that the daughter has carefully chosen, and share simple meals in bars and restaurants. However, while the daughter always appears present and engaged, fervently hoping her mother is enjoying these experiences, the latter often seems quiet or absent from the moments in question.

Threaded through the trip are various memories from the past, the narrative moving back and forth in time – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of the novel as it crosses the boundaries of time, blurring the margins between past and present. We learn of the narrator’s love of literature, especially Greek myths, a passion fuelled by an influential teacher the woman met during her youth. Further memories emerge of the mother’s family in Hong Kong, the close relatives that have long since passed away. A particularly resonant passage explores the sister’s memories of a trip to Hong Kong at the age of six or seven, sparked by the death of the girls’ maternal grandfather. The sense of disorientation experienced by the narrator’s sister is vividly conveyed, a time of intense strangeness and confusion in an unfamiliar world.

Au excels in conveying the slippery nature of memory, how our perceptions of events can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires.

But, witnessing her daughter, it was like remembering the details of a dream she once had, that perhaps, at some point in her life, there had been things worth screaming and crying over, some deeper truth, or even horror, that everyone around you perpetually denied, such that it only made you angrier and angrier. Yet now, my sister could not harness that feeling, only the memory of it, or not even that, but something even more remote. (p. 23)

Au’s prose style is gorgeous – meditative, hypnotic and perfectly poised, accentuating the beauty of the characters’ surroundings in Japan. There is some beautiful descriptive writing here, ranging from the artworks the mother and daughter see during their gallery visits to the environment of the natural world.

Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses. It had been made up of several panels, and yet the artist had used the brush only minimally, making a few careful lines on the paper. Some were strong and definite, while others bled and faded, giving the impression of vapour. And yet, when you looked, you saw something: mountains, dissolution, form and colour running forever downwards. (p. 84)

As the novella unfolds, it becomes increasingly enigmatic, prompting the reader to question the true nature of the situation they see before them. Much of the novel’s power stems from points left unsaid, a technique that gives the narrative a wonderful sense of space, enabling the reader to bring their own interpretation to the story. (In her review, Janakay likened elements of the book to A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a very apt comparison.)

There are several additional elements that I would love to discuss here, but to say any more might spoil the experience for other readers. So instead, I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the novel’s allusive nature. This is a slim, evocative novella exploring profoundly moving themes: the elusive nature of memories; the distance between the generations; and our desires to relive or reshape the past, to mould it into something slightly different, drawing perhaps on our regrets and wishes.

…and then I said that in many of the old paintings, one could discover what was called a pentimento, an earlier layer of something that the artist has chosen to paint over. Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a colour that had been changed, but other times they could be as significant as a whole figure, an animal, or a piece of furniture. 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. (pp. 92–93)

One final thought. There are some really interesting resonances here with Celine Sciamma’s latest film, Petite Maman, which explores loneliness, isolation and loss through a distanced mother-daughter relationship, albeit a somewhat different one. These two pieces of art – Au’s novel and Sciamma’s movie – share an elegant simplicity and depth of feeling. They make a fascinating, thought-provoking pair, soulmates perhaps in terms of style and themes.

29 thoughts on “Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Fabulous review, Jacquiwine! And such a wonderful use of quotations, which convey so much of the atmosphere of this haunting, elusive work. I loved your discussion of Au’s prose, particularly as it related to art; that beautiful quote about the rain and the scroll painting being a perfect illustration of the writer’s remarkable ability to link the natural and the man-made, the past (the scroll painting) and the present (the rain, which was almost a third character in the novel).
    Thanks very much for the link, BTW, as well as for your earlier review of Sunday In ville-d’Avray.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Janakay! Yes, I love the way Au writes about art and the natural world (occasionally in the same passage!), and you make a really interesting point about the contrasts these two elements. I hadn’t thought about the dynamic between the natural and the man made elements – or idea of the scroll (and other artworks) being a symbol of the past with the rain representing the present. A fascinating observation! It really is a very layered book.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui, and I totally agree with you about the book – I loved it too, and it’s most definitely not as straightforward as it sounds or seems at the start. So impressive that she fits so much into it. Slippery is definitely the word, both for the narrative and the somewhat unreliable narrator. I think I know the element you’d like to discuss and I tried to avoid revealing that in my review too (an experience in a hotel towards the end?) A very clever book…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, a gorgeous little book, I can’t wait to see what the author does next.

      You’re right about one of the elements I have in mind – that conversation at the hotel is quite a significant one, I think. And there’s something else too, a couple of references to a particular activity at the mother’s house/flat where the tense changes from one mention of it to the next. I’m probably sounding very cryptic here, but it’s hard to be more specific without giving the game away…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No need to apologise, Janakay! I’m reassured to hear that you thought the same thing. Funnily enough, I had to stop myself from reading the book twice, just to check that I hadn’t totally imagined it!

          Reply
  3. heavenali

    This sounds lovely Jacqui. The quotes you’ve used really show the quality of the writing. I especially like the one about the rain, very poetic and evocative. Those themes of distance between generations and memory really appeal along with the Japanese setting. I’ve already seen this reviewed a few times, so it’s already on my radar, even more so now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I genuinely think you’d love it, Ali. The writing is just gorgeous – so atmospheric and evocative, a style that fits perfectly with the novella’s themes. Plus, it’s only around 100 pages, which makes it a beautiful one-sitting read. A fascinating book!

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    A lovely review Jacqui! This is a book that appeals to me on several levels – the narrator, the art, and the writing. Though on the face of it they couldn’t be more different, your description and the quotes brought to mind ‘The Ice Palace’ by Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a brilliant connection, Jule! I hadn’t thought of it at all, but now that you’ve mentioned Vesaas, the parallels seem obvious, especially in terms of tone and mood. The Au has a enigmatic, haunting quality – a sense of appearing deceptively simple on the surface but with hidden depths underneath. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  5. Andrew Blackman

    This one sounds intriguing! I like books where there’s more going on under the surface. And speaking of surfaces, I love the minimalism of Fitzcarraldo book covers. No quirky illustrations or blurbs from famous authors – in a world in which everyone seems to be shouting for attention, I find it quite refreshing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s impressively ‘deep’ for such a slim book – and yet it never feels too dense or overcrowded, just very enigmatic. I’d definitely recommend it!

      Reply
  6. Jane

    This sounds beautiful Jacqui, the quote about the rain especially and I love your pairing it with Petite Maman, that’s put it to the top of my shopping and reading list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’m glad you like the sound of it, Jane. It’s such a beautiful book, very atmospheric and evocative. Funnily enough, I’d only just seen Petit Maman maybe the day before I read the book, so the comparison was a timely one!

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    This does sound a stunning read. I love a novella and this sounds like it conveys so much in a short space. The quotes you’ve pulled are stunning. I think I first heard about this in Kaggsy’s review, it is firmly on my radar! Jule’s comparison to The Ice Palace – which I love – has added to the enticement too :-) Wonderful review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi! I think you would really enjoy it. You know, The Ice Palace comparison had not occurred to me before I read Jule’s comment; but now that it’s out there, I can totally see it. Both novels have that mysterious, enigmatic quality that really gets under the reader’s skin. It’s a very intriguing book, beautifully written too.

      Reply
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  9. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds excellent. I’m definitely planning to pick this one up – I have it in a basket in fact with three other Fitzcarraldo titles on their website (they do four books for £35 if you buy directly). Really looking forward to it.

    I’m also looking forward to the Sciamma you mention. Annoyingly I missed Portrait of a Lady on Fire while it was on Mubi. I don’t plan to make the same mistake with Petite Maman.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I think you’ll really enjoy it, and there are some interesting resonances with other recent favourites like A Sunday in Ville d’Avray (which Janakay mentioned in her review) and Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin. That’s a great offer from Fitzcarraldo. I keep forgetting that you can buy directly from their website, so thanks for the reminder – they really do have an excellent list.

      That’s a shame about Portrait of a Lady on Fire dropping off Mubi. It’s still available to rent or buy as a one-off on Amazon (without having to sign up to Prime), so you might want to watch it there!

      Reply
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