Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2022

Cold Enough For Snow, by Jessica Au

Winner of the inaugural Novel Prize and thus published simultaneously in Australia, the UK and US* — Jessica Au’s second novel Cold Enough for Snow is a subdued, melancholy meditation on the frustrations of human connection.  Its innovation lies in the way that the text itself mirrors the preoccupations of the theme.

The lecturer had spoken about knowledge as an elixir and I said to my mother that this was something I believed in too.  In the Catholic school, my sister and I had both studied very hard.  If there was anything I did not know, I simply read and re-read everything I could until nothing about it was a mystery to me any longer.  In this way I was like the runner in a marathon, made up only of will and perseverance.  In school, I had done this repeatedly, and it had worked.  There, I had understood everything, and passed everything with the highest marks.  During that class, I tried to do the same.  I did all the plays, and then the books on the plays, and then the books on those.  I watched films and read about artists and directors and poets.  Each time, it was like I was travelling at the speed of light, as if I had spent my life living in one dimension, only for its very fabric to tear open and a whole other universe to be revealed.  Every time I finished a text, I felt like I was done, but then the same thing would happen again and again, a tearing open of my thoughts, a falling into a vast, unknown space, where air rushed in and all my senses were overwhelmed.  It was as if knowledge was truly an elixir, a drug.  And yet, something eluded me.  By the end of the year, I had written many words on these texts, and now knew them as well as anyone else.  I too mentioned them in conversations.  I too could be confident, and my thoughts felt rapid and full.  But all the same, I felt that there was something else, something fundamental, that I did not understand. (p.27)

Typical of the way the text reveals much more than the words on the page yet also evades a reader’s desire to understand its undercurrents, this elegiac excerpt encapsulates the narrator’s coming of age.  Economically, it shows that adolescent transition from believing that all things are possible and that one can indeed confidently ‘know it all’, to the painful realisation that even an assiduous effort of will cannot reveal the vast unknown space that complicates all our relationships.

Even in the case of that often closest of relationships, between a mother and daughter.

And sometimes made more difficult by a persistent effort of will…

The plot of this novella is simple. A mother and daughter, no longer living in the same city, travel separately to Tokyo.  They traverse a schedule meticulously planned by the daughter, visiting art galleries, shops, a church and a temple, eating in cafés and restaurants, walking always with a purpose in the autumn evenings.  Though they separate briefly in the shops and galleries to peruse things in their own way, they spend all their time together except when the daughter wants to hike a trail and the mother doesn’t — and can’t, because this oh-so-compliant mother didn’t bring walking shoes as instructed. The significance of the title then comes into view.  The daughter planned this trip for the autumn months because it had always been their favourite season. The gardens and parks would then be at their most beautiful then: the late season, everything almost gone.  But the mother had asked if the weather would be cold enough for snow, because she had never seen it.  This relationship is constrained by this daughter’s obsessive need for control, and this mother typically concedes…including with agreement to accompany her daughter on this trip to Japan.  In autumn.

At first, she had been reluctant. but I had pushed, and eventually she had agreed, not in so many words, but by protesting slightly less, or hesitating over the phone when I asked her, and by those acts alone, I knew that she was finally signalling that she would come. (p.2)

Mid-way through the narrative, there is a quiet rebuke while visiting a Christian church in Osaka.  Asked what she believed about the soul, the mother says that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just a series of of sensations and desires, none of it lasting.  She goes on to say that she too had thought it possible to understand everything, but had come to realise that in fact there was no control, and understanding would not lessen any pain.

The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches, suffering, until we either reached a state of nothingness, or else suffered elsewhere. (p.59)

The narrator refuses the potential of connection:

She was looking at me then, and I knew that she wanted me to be with her on this, to follow her, but to my shame I found that I could not and worse, that I could not even pretend.  Instead I looked at my watch and said that visiting hours were almost over, and that we should probably go. (p.59)

The restraint in Au’s narrative mirrors the restraint that characterises the behaviour of both.  The peaceful, beautiful setting in Japan subdues that country’s refusal to acknowledge its brutal history in WW2; it is the perfect setting for the suppressed turbulence of this mother-daughter relationship.

*From the prize website:

The Novel Prize offers $10,000 to the winner, and simultaneous publication in the UK and Ireland by the London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions, in Australia and New Zealand by Sydney publisher Giramondo, and in North America by New York’s New Directions. The prize rewards novels which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.

Author: Jessica Au
Title: Cold Enough for Snow
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
Design by Jenny Grigg
ISBN: 9781925818925, pbk., 98 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.


Responses

  1. This book has had a lot of positive attention, and I think it’s a book I should like, but I have yet to connect with the reviews. Possibly a book I should have sought out simply on the strength of the wonderful title without reading too many reviews. :)

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    • Exactly what I thought. Nothing I read made me want to take it up.
      But from the moment I started reading, and reading between the lines in particular, I was hooked.

      Like

  2. I will have to come back top this. Much of what I read made me want to take it up (I’ve just read the comments and not your post!) Indeed, because of what I’d read I bought two copies, one for me and one for my American friend’s birthday in March. I had hoped to read it by now but it might end up being a Novellas in November book.

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  3. I really like the quotes you pulled. Such restrained, beautiful writing. Is the image the Giramondo cover? It’s very striking.

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    • Yes, it’s the Giramondo cover.
      They’re in Tokyo during typhoon season, so it’s an allusion to that but also, depending on you take the ending, a hint of tears to come.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yours is the second review of this book I’ve read and is making me all the more interested in picking this up. From the description, it was the journey in Japan that attracted me, but I think now the relationship between the two would be interesting to see since both seem challenging to understand.

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    • Yes, it’s the relationship that’s fascinating. I found myself reading backwards and forwards and revising my opinion as the text progressed and I saw significances that I hadn’t noted before.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review, Lisa – it’s such a good book, isn’t it? So much more going on than is obvious…

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    • I’ve just read your review from back in February, it’s so nice to know someone else who has read it. I’m just about to PM you at Twitter to see what you made of the ending!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I adored this book and hope to reread it, but it wasn’t easy to review thanks to its understated yet elegaic writing.

    Liked by 1 person


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