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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
3:00 AM 9th April 2022
arts

Review: Cold Enough For Snow By Jessica Au

‘Lyrical and poetic’ is a phrase arguably over-used to describe narratives that have moved and stimulated us; but in this case I feel the phrase might justly be applied. Cold Enough for Snow is a short novel by Jessica Au, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and a winner of the Novel Prize, an award offered by Fitzcarraldo, New Directions (US) and Giramondo (Australia) for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form. And rightly so.
Cold Enough for Snow encourages the reader to think, feel, reflect and engage.

The scenario is quite simple: a mother and daughter meet in Tokyo to take a trip together, to share and absorb the vibrant cultural heritage that Japan has to offer, to share meals, and to make small talk on shopping trips. Voiced by the daughter, as our narrator, it is relayed in the past tense and it is less an account of their experiences, more a catalyst to help the narrator give voice to thoughts we come to suspect she might prefer not to reveal.

Along the way we piece together elements of her world: she talks of her husband, she recalls conversations they’ve exchanged, shares memories of trips they have taken. We learn more of the backstory: her mother was born in Hong Kong, for example, but the narrator was born and raised in Australia. She muses on how these formulative years have made them fundamentally different, touching on the notion of identity, the experience of immigration, and how a child born overseas can be a stranger to their parent’s heritage. A question that threads seamlessly through the narrative is how closely are we connected and how well can we truly understand another’s rationale? Is identity something that is created by the self, or informed or manipulated by the events that we live through?

During the trip, her mother asks an innocuous question on the climate: is it cold enough for snow? As the book’s title, it is not a statement, but it forms a question – is our narrator cold, unfeeling, or unforthcoming? She is clearly intelligent and, like so many others, complex, but we enquire based on what we are not told. We suspect, despite her candour with the reader, that her intellect will maintain her objective, and suppress a genuine emotional response. Can she use emotion to form a connection, or inform an action? We accept that she is to remain somewhat aloof, but we see her kind-hearted and well-intentioned nature, we sense her strong independence, but still the question persists – in this account, what is it that is not being told?

The prose is beautiful, written here by a narrator who we know has artistic leanings. Her incisive observations are sensitively captured: the candles that 'smelt briefly of birthday cakes' and the water that gave 'a shaking, delicate impression of the world above'. The language is not complex - that is not necessary - but with its beauty, the prose is clear: it presents us with facts we are then at liberty to interpret and to question.

The earlier points might indicate we are hesitant to trust the narrator, but this is not the case. We warm to her; we almost have sympathy – why, if we are right, is there a reluctance to give her inner feelings a voice? Is she reluctant to express anything that cannot categorically be supported by fact? Or is it really that she fears how her responses might be perceived?
Her incisive observations are sensitively captured: the candles that 'smelt briefly of birthday cakes'...

Perception is a recurring motif, particularly the knowledge of its susceptibility to influence and experience. On her own perception and opinions, she confesses to the pressure she sometimes feels, and asks whether this pressure renders a personal response little more than a performance. Or if it is ok to simply feel nothing.

Cold Enough for Snow encourages the reader to think, feel, reflect and engage. The mother and daughter’s experiences are expertly visualised, the narrator’s deliberations deftly voiced. And language is key: a big question posed is whether we really can share a common language and if we can truly know another based on words alone.

Captivating, thought-provoking, and a joy to read, Cold Enough for Snow was a truly absorbing experience.

Cold Enough for Snow is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.