Gollancz, 2004, 297 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07181-8
Canadians enjoy a worldwide reputation as easygoing, unflappable, even dull people. It’s long been a national contention that our long winter have something to do with this placid nature. Good government and central heating really do sound like excellent ideas in a country that spends at least four months per year in freezing temperatures. But don’t think we can’t be scared out of our wits. If you want to give nightmares to a Canadian, just start talking about a winter that never ends.
That’s exactly how The Snow begins. Snow starts falling on September 6th… and never stops. Our narrator for most of the novel, Tira Bojani Sahai, is a young English woman of Indian descent that manages to survive the snowfall as London gets buried under a blanket of snow of glacial thickness. Not that the rest of the world has done much better, she finds out once she’s rescued after this harrowing first section: As far as anyone knows, the entire globe is now encased in an icy shell. And yet humanity endures. But to what purpose?
As the stuff nightmares are made of, The Snow is top-notch. Straight in the conceptual footsteps of J.G. Ballard’s catastrophe novels, Adam Roberts’ fifth novel starts off by killing billions of people. Promising start, delivered with matter-of-fact prose that only makes the horror more obvious. But those of you expecting the hard-SF version of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW may be disappointed: In Roberts’ typical fashion, this is a novel about precariousness, weird environments, unreliable narrators, ludicrous plot twists and unsatisfying developments. As with the author’s previous novels, it’s both lovely and frustrating in equal fashion, praiseworthy and damnable for never doing the expected thing. One thing is for sure: this is not a boring book.
The narrator alone is a piece of work: While it’s easy to feel a lot of initial empathy for Tira as she struggles through a situation that would kill most of us, latter developments refine her personality in increasingly complex fashion. We come to doubt her narrative, a doubt that is rewarded late in the novel as her unreliability is exposed in a short heartbreaking conversation. As far as characters are concerned, Tira is one of Roberts’ most achieved creation.
A shame that one can’t be so complimentary about the story that surrounds her. The Snow may be a clever metaphor for many different things, and that’s part of the problem: Readers flail around like Canadians without snowshoes, sucked into a bottomless pile of fluffy stuff.
Reigning in my runaway metaphors, it suffices to say that The Snow goes nowhere for a while, spends some time describing yet another repressive regime, spends more time doing nothing, backtrack to a current-day narrative (a first for a Roberts novel) then goes on a wild tangent in which the real story behind the real story of the Snow is exposed. The end takes a loony turn that is as endearing (in a “Whee!” fashion) as it seems clobbered out of thin air. Lengthy delirious passages leading to the conclusion don’t do much to prepare anyone for the last few twists.
By this point, you can figure out that The Snow leaves a scattered impression. Parts of the novel are brilliant, and other parts feel like filler. (A digression about skin colour never quites gels, even as an instance of the narrator’s unreliability) As with most other Roberts novels, there is a hidden narrator between the text and the reader: Here, an unseen censor peppers the text with [Blank] character names and a few [expletive deleted], warning the reader of dire consequences if those top-secret pieces are read by unauthorized personnel. Interesting, although the tell-all epilogue takes away part of the fun.
In some ways, The Snow is the best thing that Adam Robert has done. The initially endearing narrator, the suffocating first fifty pages, the layering of an unseen layer of interpretation are all top-notch. Heck, even some of the disappointing elements are pure genius. But the final result lacks cohesion even as the novel works overtime to drive readers away. While it’s easy to appreciate Roberts’ constant refusal to do the easy thing, how hard would it be, once in a while, to throw a bone to his audience? Could that explain why, even after a string of disappointing novels, I keep coming back to his stuff in the hope that this, finally, will be his novel that truly satisfies all expectations?