Book Review: Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen

The Snow QueenThe Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michael Cunningham has always been one of my favourite authors and his latest book, The Snow Queen, reminded me why: I think it will be one of my favourites of his, once it settles in some more.

How I loved my courses in literature in university. I was as interested in politics as I was in literature, and thought it would be a smarter career path. So, I didn’t major in English, but I did manage to sneak in a number of literature courses into my degree. What a privilege it was to spend time, after reading a wonderful book, to just think about it, to choose some random theme to focus on, but in a way that allowed you to really delve in, interrogate and live with the author’s words.

Reading The Snow Queen, I had a longing for that lost phase of mine. And since I’m certainly not going to write an English essay for fun, this book review will have to do.

I first discovered The Hours on recommendation of a flatmate, who had such good taste in literature, I thought we would make good flatmates. We did not. Though I was grateful for the recommendation of Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel: short, compact and divided into three sections reflecting three different characters and time periods, with thematic links between them that almost made the book seem like a beautiful, long poem. I found it a masterpiece, and deeply moving.

I read his previous two books soon after: A Home at the End of the World, which I didn’t like as much, and Flesh and Blood, a sprawling family saga which I adored, and was certainly Cunningham’s lengthiest book. Specimen Days, which followed The Hours, used the same trick of a three-part story with three different characters. By Nightfall returned to the New York arts scene (an art dealer, whereas Clarissa in The Hours was a book editor). In the two books that followed The Hours, I remember recognising beautiful writing and movements of wonder, but that as a whole, they didn’t resonate with me as much.

That’s the thing with books, hey? We have our subjective opinions of them; these will change depending on what we’re going through. The theme of cancer – and illness and recovery and the details of how we care for those who are sick – is one I know from the last year; another theme, a little harder to summarise, but about how to be in the world, how to enjoy its magic while grappling with expectations of ourself and others – well, let’s just say, I had that weird (but I don’t think uncommon) feeling where you like a book so much you think it’s been written for you.

A few of the technical gifts that I love about Cunningham: his long winding sentences which seem like they may be stream-of-consciousness but in fact manage to both put us in the mental state of mind of his characters and feel their internal worlds, but also impart character studies and observations in a compact way. Describing the brilliant but aimless Barrett, his brother Tyler recounts his post-Yale wanderings, none of them ‘which seems to have led him anywhere in particular’ yet included working as a fry cook, starting a PhD, an internet venture, a café and being threatened with a knife by an ex-boyfriend.

In fact, at times, I found the condensation of experience a little too intense, and found the chapters better absorbed if I took breaks while I was reading. His characters feel intensely, sometimes in particularly dramatic ways (the biggest example being Barrett’s vision in the sky in Central Park, upon which the book is based); but I like that, the bigness of it all. You’d probably barely notice his character Beth walking in the snow, while she’s feeling ‘remarkable, being alive’, wanting the ‘un-company of passing strangers’, having somewhat of an epiphany on wishing Happy New Year to a young couple. It’s a really fascinating dance of words, between her close physical observations of what is around her, and the internal churning of her thoughts about life and survival and even including an analogy with Greek gods, and ending up neither external or internal, but simply in a present state, ‘thinking of nothing in particular’.

It’s interesting how much Cunningham returns to similar themes. I feel like I’ve read all of these before in different combinations: a close loving relationship between siblings, an unexpected love affair between friends, a gay character who has sex with women, or in the past did. There are always engaging and amusing observations of gay life, the arts or literary scene, and it a pleasant place to imagine: not-too-rich, not-too-poor bohemian and stylish New Yorkers, who attend parties, drink, take drugs, flirt and fight with each other. One of his strongest themes is about trying to create something that is perfect, and what that means. In two previous novels (two…), it’s a cake that doesn’t turn out right; in this book, it’s a song that wants to encapsulate everything: love, artistic genius, a perfect transmission of intent and caring.

I hope Cunningham doesn’t fret too much over whether his creations are perfect. The way the theme comes up, I’m unsure if the issue is resolved for him. Can creation be perfect? Isn’t it enough for your work to be incredibly beautiful and accomplished, and have something very powerful and interesting to say about how we live our lives in this world – though perhaps I’m projecting. I personally loved this book so much, I hope that it has the power to touch others in the same way.

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