Read 20/04/2020-26/04/2020

Rating 5 stars

Ice is a post-apocalyptic dystopia full of frozen emotions and Kafkaesque happenings. It’s a difficult book to review. The plot is barely linear, cut through with hallucination and adumbration. There’s an impending climate disaster that influences the action, but at heart it’s an examination of the worst of human nature. And yet it’s not entirely grim, either.

I had never heard of Anna Kavan until my husband bought her most celebrated book for me. Ice has introduced me to an interesting author, a woman who used to write observational, semi-autobiographical fiction and who suffered a breakdown after the end of her second marriage. She emerged from her treatment with a new name and a new outlook.

The foreword to the book also introduced me to a literary concept I was unaware of, despite loving a number of authors grouped within it. Slipstream literature was devised in the late 80s as a way to group books that didn’t fit into existing established genres. A cyberpunk writer coined the term. Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K Dick, Stanislaw Lem are sometimes grouped together as slipstream writers. Slipstream encompasses writing that embodies a state of mind that exists in the spaces between. There is an otherness to it. Familiar things are viewed through a prism, distorting the surface normality to create a new reality. Without knowing that it existed, it turns out that slipstream literature is one of my favourite kinds of literature.

I’ve read a few opinion pieces recently about reading during lockdown. One Guardian editorial saw hope in people turning to literature “to be absorbed in a story that is not about themselves”. The Guardian also now has Australian and US bureaux and one of the Australian journalists, Caroline Zielinski, wrote about her lockdown reading habits. She says that the usual escapist literature she reads seems irrelevant and she has turned to dystopian fiction during lockdown. I understand what she means. Of the four books I’ve read over the last five weeks, two have had a dystopian air to them and one, while not dystopian, was an historical exploration of hardship. I didn’t consciously seek out novels about people going through tough times, and it might be that these present circumstances coloured my reading of them, but they were largely a good fit with how I was feeling and a distraction from it.

Matthew d’Ancona of Tortoise Media wrote a widely shared article comparing the first 28 days of UK lockdown with Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later. It seems that the creative imaginings of novelists and film makers are a way for the rest of us to understand our current situation without becoming overwhelmed by the reality of what we are experiencing.

This reading of opeds is partly what led me to choose Ice as my next read. I felt I needed something weird, as unlike reality as possible but still somehow next to it. I wanted something like I Who Have Never Known Men or The Natural Way of Things, maybe even something like WE. The write up on the back cover of Ice drew me in.

In a stark and surreal landscape an unnamed narrator competes with a man known as ‘the warden’ in an obsessive search to find and control an elusive sylph-like being with albino hair called ‘the girl’. Their sadistic pursuit of this strange and fragile young woman is set against an apocalyptic background, with the planet facing catastrophe in the form of ever-encroaching ice.

It is a very peculiar book. All we know about the narrator is that he once had a love affair that ended badly, leaving him plagued by nightmares and headaches, and that he has spent most of his adult life as a soldier and an explorer in the tropics. He returns to the north as a climate crisis is building. He’s back to find the woman who rejected him. She’s married to a dilettante artist and the narrator’s unexpected return unsettles her.

The woman is rendered as a girl. She is 21 but physically childlike. She dresses as a child. The narrator refers to her as ‘the girl’.

The plot, such as it is, is open to interpretation. It seemed to me that the narrator experiences a combination of flashbacks and waking dreams about the girl that combine with the present worries about the encroaching ice sheet. The timeline jumps around like a dream. There is often a lack of travel between episodes, as in a dream. In the narrator’s hallucinatory recollections, the ice is consuming the girl, freezing her body from the feet up. It seemed to me that the ice here was a metaphor for emotion, either the girl’s lack of it for the narrator or the narrator’s negative emotion towards her.

The ice sheet is all too real, though. The climate crisis is in the form of a melting Antarctic ice cap potentially travelling north and causing the sun’s rays to be reflected back into space without warming the earth. But nobody really knows. There’s conjecture about what has caused the polar changes and how the crisis might play out. One passage in particular raised a wry smile, given the current global situation and the way some governments are responding to it.

In town, everything was chaotic and contradictory. News from abroad was censored, but travel was left unrestricted. Confusion was increased by a spate of new and conflicting regulations, and by the arbitrary way controls were imposed or lifted … My impression was that [the politicians] had lost their heads, did not know how to deal with the approaching danger, and hoped to keep the public in ignorance of its exact nature until a plan had been evolved.

And again, later, as the situation worsens.

On the surface, the life of the town appeared normal, but underneath it was coming gradually to a standstill. The news from the north was scanty, confused, frightening. I realised that the destruction must have been on a gigantic scale. Little could have survived. The local broadcasters were cheerfully reassuring. It was the official policy, the population had to be kept calm. But these men actually believed their country would escape the cataclysm.

The crisis in this book is different to the one facing us currently. The responses to it by those in power and those in the media is chillingly similar, though. It made me question whether the very nature of people who seek power in government means that they can only respond to crisis by hiding the truth behind propaganda. It made me wonder why we the public are so unwilling to hold our governments to account. Kavan’s experience of crisis was rooted in the Second World War, which caused me to reflect on the rose-tinted harking back that’s done in Britain, focused on the gung-ho ‘get things done’ narrative, ignorant of any other reading of it.

Although the crisis and the deterioration of society in the face of it interested me, it was little more than backdrop to the main plot. At its heart, Ice is a story about obsession. The narrator cannot stop thinking about the girl, dreaming about her, hallucinating her. When she runs away from her husband, news of her escape reaches the narrator. He sets off in pursuit, following rumours of where she has been and where she is headed. He boards a ship that’s headed north and ends up in a Scandinavian town under the control of a man known as ‘the warden’.

Kavan’s description of the place owes a lot to Kafka’s The Castle, from the subdued behaviour of the residents and their suspicion of the narrator to the mechanism by which the narrator must contact the warden and seek a permit to remain in the town.

The warden watches everything through the eyes of the people whose lives he controls. The narrator is convinced that the warden is holding the girl captive in his residence, the High House. The warden dangles promises of arranging a meeting between the narrator and the girl, but never carries out those promises. There is a battle of wills between the narrator and the warden beneath a surface of icy politeness.

There’s an element of many worlds about the plot. The narrator recounts happenings that could be real in another dimension, could be dreams, could be hallucinations. They often don’t fit with the main thread of the narrative, throwing the reader off slightly. They present an alternative trajectory for the story that is never fulfilled.

The narrator’s pursuit becomes focused on the warden as well as the girl. The girl is under the warden’s physical control but manages to maintain her mental independence. A strange symbiosis grows between the narrator and the warden, a competitiveness that is mutually dependent.

The warden flees his town when civil unrest strikes, taking the girl with him. The unrest escalates into war and it takes time for the narrator to locate the warden again. When the narrator finally catches up with the warden he also gets to see the girl. Kavan’s description of the encounter bears the marks of domestic abuse. The girl behaves as many women unable to escape an abusive partner do – with fear and a desire to comply with her abuser in the hope that she will escape the worst of his abuse.

The warden said : ‘I’ve tried to persuade her to go to a safer place, but she refuses to leave.’ He smiled complacently, showing me his power over her. I found it hard to accept. I looked round the room : the chair, a small mirror, a bed, paperbacks on the table, dust everywhere, fallen plaster thick on the floor. Her grey loden coat hung from a hook. I saw no other personal belongings except a comb and a square of chocolate in torn silver paper. I turned away from the man and addressed her directly, trying to speak as if he was not there. ‘You don’t seem very comfortable here. Why not go to a hotel, somewhere further away from the fighting?’ She did not answer, shrugged her shoulders slightly. A silence followed.

The suggestion is that the girl has a choice about her future. She later threatens the warden that she will leave him one day. She seems to believe her own words. Eventually, she acts on them, reigniting the narrator’s pursuit. He ‘rescues’ her, against her will, from another war ravaged country about to be swallowed by the ice. He takes her to the tropics, where she thrives. Like all forbidden fruit, he finds he doesn’t want her once he has her, and abandons her again. He returns to his mercenary ways, re-engaging with the warden again, to rekindle his old jealousy and obsession. The ever encroaching ice adds urgency to his final pursuit of the girl.

In the moment of their final reunion, the narrator is annoyed by how well the girl is doing without him. She has claimed and embraced her independence. She is indifferent to the narrator, no longer either afraid of him or affectionate toward him. Her indifference is a triumph. He tries to reduce it to a performance, but it is real. She is free of him and his need to narrate her existence. He is pathetic in the face of her confidence, whining to himself about how she doesn’t acknowledge what he’s been through to see her again, attempting to cow her with cruelty and threats. Violent words and violent actions are his default response to her inability to be the person he wants her to be.

Finally the girl speaks her truth to him. She presents to him a version of himself he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

… what she said was so incredible that I said again : ‘It’s not possible – it can’t be true.’ Face convulsed, she gasped in a voice choked by tears : ‘Haven’t you had enough yet? Can’t you ever stop bullying me?’
Suddenly I felt ashamed …

Her revelation catalyses a change in him, but it’s a change that is still all about him, signified by his words, “She could not know that I had just discovered a new pleasure in tenderness.” A little later, as her wariness of him begins to wane, “I wondered why I had waited so long to be kind to her, until it was almost too late.” She told you, mate. It’s because you’re a bully, a voracious ego on legs.

I loved this book. Kavan has captured the way in which men try to ignore the reality of women, turning them into helpless creatures to be rescued, naughty children to be punished, weak minded victims to be dominated. As I read the final pages, I thought about two women who have been reduced to stories and ceased to be people, Marilyn Monroe and Ruth Ellis. Both are immortalised as having lived chaotic lives with multiple sexual partners, as though that was a fault of theirs and the reason for their fates. I thought about all the women who are verbally abused daily, and too often physically abused, because they haven’t smiled back at a man they don’t know, or have refused a drink, or dared to wear clothing they like that some male stranger has decided is a provocation to his desire, or offered an opinion when a man doesn’t think it’s their place to do so. I thought about the women who are bullied in relationships by men who need to control them, because they lack the ability to celebrate them, have to trample them down to feel better about themselves. It made me sad and angry.

I found another article about Kavan’s other work that has made me keen to read more. Perhaps Kavan will become an author I look out for in second hand bookshops.

4 thoughts on “Ice

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