Review: Cold Enough For Snow by Jessica Au

In this fine and exquisite novella a mother and adult daughter take a short holiday in Japan. Actually, I don’t believe the gender of the child is ever mentioned, because they are the one telling the story, but the contextual clues seem to suggest her reading as woman (and the blurb definitively does). Even so, it introduces yet another instability in a book that is full of them, belying its calm surface.

They start in Tokyo, visit museums, bookshops, galleries and cafes, and then move south to Osaka and Kyoto, where the daughter leaves her mother for a night to undertake a walk through forest and mountains. While they are doing so the daughter reminisces on her childhood and adolescence, her first loves, aspirations and early violations, her relationship with her mother and her mother’s family. Her mother grew up in Hong Kong before migrating to somewhere else to raise her family (again not named, but I felt very strongly that it is Melbourne; there’s only a single mention of a tram but I felt I knew the lecturer’s house the daughter visits, the restaurant where she works).

That’s really it as far as plot goes. This is a fine novella in every sense: carefully wrought, delicate, thin. But fine things can be strong, like a spider’s web or, to mix a metaphor in that works better with the book’s aqueous imagery, still waters run deep. There are exquisite depictions of art and design throughout. Contemplating old fabrics hanging in a room, the daughter notes their trailing on the floor is like “frozen water”. It is not the only time a thing will look like something else. Later the glaze at the bottom of a bowl will look “like a blue pond, but when you tilted the bowl to the side, it didn’t move”. As a young woman the daughter sees a Monet painting for the first time in a gallery in the city where she grew up. Later in a wonderful coincidence she’ll come across the same painting in Tokyo:

looking at the pale light, the great shapes of hay in a field, something struck me. They had seemed to me then, as now, like paintings about time. It felt like the artist was looking at the field with two gazes. The first was the face of youth … The second was the gaze of an older man.

It’s curious that Monet is one of the few artists named explicitly (suggested is James Turrell, another worker of light). This book reminded me most of Eva Figes’s exquisite depiction of a day in the life of the painter at Giverny in her novella Light. Both create a whole world and history from stillness, worked from light and time. The way that Cold Enough For Snow Loops loops and doubles back, or sets off on a different but parallel timeline, inflates the scope of this tiny novel until it encompasses entire lives. Au plays similar illusions with place. Try and figure out for instance where the daugher’s father-in-law lives: clearly somewhere tropical, perhaps Queensland, but the deep and still crater lake where she swims with her husband that was formed by the impact of a comet as far as I can tell does not exist.

These instabilities speak ultimately to the daughter’s relationship with her mother. Towards the end the daughter confesses that the trip “had not done what I wanted it to”. This seems to be her desire to get to know her mother as an adult, to erode the boundaries which separate selves, which is of course an impossibility and perhaps one of the greatest but most inevitable hurts of living. The daughter watches mothers at the baths with babies, “tipping water over their heads while holding up a hand to protect their eyes” and yearns for “how they did not feel truly separated from each other yet, but rather still part of the same body, the same spirit”. Despite her age in years, the daughter is perhaps still too young, self-absorbed (and not in a pejorative sense) and idealistic to make peace with this. Her mother is unknowable to her; on the trip she gently fails to be impressed by the sites the daughter has carefully arranged for them, and finds pleasures in experiences the daughter failed to imagine.

If the distance between us is the original wound, can it be healed? A clue may be in the daughter’s draw to those artworks she describes so vividly. “Once,” she writes, “Something as simple as a bowl from you ate or a vessel from which your drank had been undifferentiated from art”. The care an artist or craftsperson takes in their work reaches across ravines, an offering. Perhaps the daughter too, by creating this portrait of her relationship with her mother, is reaching across the divide.

Gay rating: not gay.

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