Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2009

Ice (2008), by Louis Nowra

ice What a treat this turned out to be!  I’m making my way through the Miles Franklin shortlist, and from some of the reviews I’d read I really wasn’t sure that I was going to like this one, but it turns out to be a most interesting book.  (Actually, the judges have a difficult task ahead of them this year with so many fine books hitting the shelves – I’m glad I don’t have to decide which one should win!)

Ice begins with Malcolm McEachern, an entrepreneur who transports an iceberg to Sydney Harbour in the early days of the colony.  It’s hacked to bits and used in a variety of ways: for ice in luxury drinks, as a refrigerant and as a preservative for corpses, not least for the body of a sailor who’d died in Antarctic waters 40 years before. 


And then on p38 there is a sudden, disorienting jolt and the narrative switches from 3rd person past tense omniscient to 2nd person present, the era signalled almost casually by the reference to the sails of the Sydney Opera House.  The un-named subject addressed by the narrator is some kind of researcher whose ‘neat detective work’ reveals Malcolm’s childhood in Islay, in Glasgow and in London.  The narrative then drifts back to the past until p43 when the researcher is revealed as Beatrice who lies in a coma, perhaps after an assault of some kind.  Her lover, as yet genderless,  (but not if you’ve read the blurb on the back) is trying to complete her research for her.  So the narrative consists of  research (some by her and some by him) and his one-way conversation with his unconscious wife.

It’s really difficult to write about what happens and how this book is constructed without revealing more than I should.  The tricky thing with Ice is that it’s not just plot points that are relevant.  There are segments that seem very strange and incoherent, and had I not read Tim Hall’s helpful piece in the Australian Book Review I might not have worked out how brilliantly Nowra has constructed these parallel narratives.  Part of the pleasure in this book is the moment when it dawns on you what Nowra is up to, and then the fun of tracing back through the pages to see where the transitions are. 

Nowra also plays around with ‘ice’ in its too-common contemporary manifestation, but I most enjoyed his replication of 19th century Australia.  There is a superb description of Collins St on p182 and Cairns on p191; there’s also a nice credit to Queen Victoria on p149 for her prescient recognition that:

the ice-making machine was the beginning of a revolution…it had defeated putrescence and it had overcome the inevitable decay of death.  It was unnatural – and that was the point.  It would turn notions of decay and death upside down.  The unnatural would become the way of things.

All kinds of unnatural things proceed to happen in this intriguing study of obsession.  There are some fabulously memorable characters, some of whom are based on real people.  I was especially fond of the Frenchman Eugene Nicolle, who teaches Malcolm the importance of dressing to impress (p111) and the lugubrious Andrew whose cautious personality gets swamped by Malcolm’s soaring ambitions.

I was a little unnerved by Nowra’s somewhat negative portrayals of Aborigines.  Describing Malcolm’s interest and ambitions, he writes ‘He was especially intrigued by Australia, with its cannibal Aborigines.’ (p49)  This is not something I’ve come across before, and I wondered why Nowra would choose to include it.   Then on p108 he uses the term n—– a term used in the 19th century but not now (except by racists, I suppose).  The narrator who is writing this biography for Beatrice is writing some time after the completion of the Sydney Opera House – and that narrator must be aware (as must be Nowra himself) of the sensitivities around this word’s use.  Why does Nowra choose to use it? Why does he show Aborigines to be liars and savages (p192-3) and have them squabble like children over a mirror?  If he is trying to be authentic in representing 19th century racism, it seems unnecessarily provocative to me.

This quibble aside, Ice is a fine book, and if it were not up against a stellar cast of contenders, I’d feel confident about placing a small bet on its chances in the Miles Franklin!

Author: Louis Nowra
Title: Ice
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2008
ISBN: 9781741754834
Source: Personal copy, $32.95, from Shearers on Norton Bookshop



  1. Thanks for your review, which I’ve only just skimmed in case of the spoilers. I was undecided whether to read this, but you’ve convinced me. I loved Louis Nowra’s “Twelfth of Never”, especially when I learned that he lived in my very suburb- in fact, if I look out the window I can see his very street at a distance!


  2. Hi Janine
    I think with your interest in the C19th you will find Ice quite intriguing.
    Would you like me to send you a photocopy of the ALR review by Tim Hall? It’s not online unfortunately, and it is very good.
    PS I thought of you when one of our contemporary ex judges was sent to gaol for perjury!


  3. What a fascinating story that is. I have often wondered how ice is made, and this book seems to offer the answers!

    Thank you for commenting on my review of To Siberia, and also pointing out that Out Stealing Horses is a good read. I have now ordered it from the library.


  4. Oh I hope you like it, Tom!


  5. I’m afraid this book didn’t do anything for me. There’s a review on my blog, (which I now see you’ve already read) but the point is I don’t think it gelled very well.

    Interesting point about racism in the novel. Surely not having it there would be a stranger omission than including something that was normal and accepted at the time in which the novel was set?


  6. Hi Matt, as you have seen on my blog I started Ice feeling pessimistic and turned out to like it very much. I think it captures the mind of the obsessive very well, and Rowan’s in particular.
    I do understand why it may not be to everyone’s taste. It wasn’t until I realised that it was *Rowan* who had ‘lost the plot’ not Nowra that the latter part of the story began to make sense. We are inside the mind of a man not coping with what has happened to his wife, and it’s a very odd experience indeed. (For all I know, it may be what it’s like to be inside the mind of someone affected by ice-the-drug too). It seemed very true-to-life though: how often have I heard someone say, ‘oh it’s what so-and-so would have wanted’ when so-and-so is on the way to being dead and gone, not capable of wanting anything and shouldn’t as a matter of respect be second-guessed in this way.
    Your comment about Nowra sticking to plays is interesting: maybe it is structured a bit like a play?
    (cross posted at


  7. Good Morning Lisa

    Just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying Ice. I will read your review once I have finished reading and I agree with you that the judges have a most difficult task ahead. Oh and have just read your post over at Reading Matters blog =)



    • It’s such an interesting book, isn’t it? Yes, I keep a vague eye on Reading Matters but don’t subscribe to it because every blog I subscribe to makes me buy more books! Lisa


  8. […] enough of all that.  Novel about My Wife is a very interesting book.  It reminded me a bit of Louis Nowra’s Ice in its treatment of a not-quite-reliable narrator posthumously explaining about his wife.  […]


  9. […] Australia has its own examples of the genre, including Louis Nowra’s Ice (2008 – Lisa’s review and mine) and Virginia Duigan’s The Biographer (2008). In her second novel, The […]


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