Alice Hoffman's latest novel gives itself up very slowly, and so requires patience and persistence. Unfortunately, quite a lot of patience and persistence.
In the final 10 pages of The Ice Queen, Hoffman delivers a breathtaking plot twist, one of the best I can remember. It not only shifts the story but makes psychological sense of everything that went before. What has been a rather abstract tale of the supernatural acquires human complexity and coherence. The downside is that, until then, we've had to do without much human complexity and coherence at all.
Hoffman's latest fairy tale begins when an eight-year-old child wishes her mother dead. That night, her mother dies in a car crash on the snowy New Jersey roads. Blaming herself, the girl grows up with a sliver of ice in her heart, believing in curses and fate, fantasising about being 'an invisible queen of the ice' who cannot be hurt.
She remains unnamed, as if she is in training to be an archetype, and constantly refers to fairy stories, of her own devising and other people's, to make sense of the world. Unfortunately she is also tiresomely self-absorbed and self-pitying.
The Ice Queen
'I didn't deserve kindness, or loyalty, or luck,' she complains. 'My life was empty and that was fine.' 'Even my own cat disliked me.' When someone sends her roses, her instinct is to put them in the freezer. 'Cold storage for a cold heart ... For all I'd done, for all I'd wished, a rose made of ice was exactly what I deserved.'
Once she grows up, she wishes to be struck by lightning, and she soon is. Among several rather clunky coincidences, her brother happens to be a meteorologist who is studying the effects of lightning strikes on people. Through him, she hears about Lazarus Jones, another lightning victim, who is not only attractive for having died and come back to life (so she thinks she won't be able to kill him) but is the fire to her ice, so hot that he can only eat cold food, his breath capable of setting fire to paper.
Will he melt her? The Ice Queen, like Hoffman's previous novels, mixes the suburban and the magical, the uncanny and prosaic. But so keen is Hoffman to draw parallels with Andersen and Grimm, to make her point about chaos theory accounting for the potency of fairy tales, that for much of the book she seems to lose sight of the ordinary, the human, the likeable.
'Fairy tale logic can be intractable or fluid and the hero never knows which it is,' her narrator claims. But fluid logic alone does not a fairytale make. The archetypal heroes of fairy stories have to be believable; magical realism only works if the realism is anchored in something recognisable. I could accept Hoffman's heroine as a symbol; I just didn't have much interest in her as a human being.
The writing doesn't help. Hoffman is capable of beautiful, poetic prose, but the incantatory tone of much of this novel soon starts to feel ponderous. It is not enough for her heroine to have sex; she must think 'of all those women who had sex with monsters in the dark. Men without names who were bears or ogres, men who were enchanted or enslaved ... '
The imagery is repetitive fire, ice, death, bats, crossing mountains, lightning and butterflies. Chaos theory sits like a symbol in the middle of the novel, referenced but not explored.
Her point, of course, is that lives are contingent and perilous and we cling to stories and love to survive. And her many fans, who won't be impatient of her when she becomes a fabulist, will find this story of a librarian struck by lightning moving, inspiring and finally comforting.
By the end, the novel seemed much more impressive than it had all the way through. The thread of rationality and psychological truth that seemed to be missing was shown to have been there all the time, hidden under the ice. For me, though, it just took a bit too long to thaw out.
Source: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
(R) thedailystar.net 2005