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An ice-cold fairytale thaws into everyday sentiment

The original Snow Queen, Hans Christian Andersen’s frigid, fairytale stranger with a kiss colder than ice, has a powerful if ambiguous attraction. You can see why she appeals to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham. What sort of villain is she? Not evil so much as aloof, even obscure. She abducts a young boy, offers him the whole world and a new pair of skates, then disappears, leaving him stranded in a wasteland of adult rationality, his childhood dreams extinguished.
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For Cunningham, an empathetic and humane writer of slightly arty bestsellers, she is the perfect rival: an enemy of sentiment.

It is 2004 and Barrett Meeks has just seen the eye of God winking at him above a wintry New York skyline. At one time considered a sort of literary critical wunderkind, Barrett is now drifting through his middle years, restless and unfulfilled.

He likes his vaguely bohemian life, working in a low-paid retailing job, scribbling notes on Madame Bovary in his spare time, but he wants more: more meaning, more love, more life. He’s a romantic with a craving for faith, but he’s painfully aware of his incapacity for genuine religious conviction. Surely this celestial vision is what he’s been waiting for? A guarantee that everything will be all right, that he is not alone. But is it God? Or is it only the eye of that damned Snow Queen? A cool, inscrutable presence that promises neither peace nor rest.

Across town, Barrett’s older brother, Tyler, has just woken from a strange dream. He’s a singer-songwriter struggling with a cocaine habit, struggling to make the most of his modest talent and struggling with the news that his wife-to-be has only months to live. He wants to write her the perfect love song, a goodbye of everlasting value, but it’s not going well. Is he trying too hard? Does he love her, or only her tragedy? There is a speck of something embedded in his eye, and a pain in his heart like a sliver of ice, a secret coldness overtaking his soul.

It sounds like fairytale kitsch – the eye in the sky, enchanted grit and heartslivers – and it is fairytale kitsch, of a novelistic kind, but, to be fair, there’s also an involving human drama that develops around it. The problem with The Snow Queen is more in the rather dull way this quiet drama resolves itself.

Things begin strongly. Cunningham evokes a dark and rustling world, half-deserted, full of ragged shadows, unnamed and unnameable. The brothers and their lovers prowl the wintry streets, animal and enigmatic, their thoughts and feelings caught incomplete in fleeting moonbeam moments of insight. Through Barrett’s eyes (playing the part of Gerda, Hans Christian Andersen’s young heroine, all devotion and kindness), everything seems veiled and muffled, suggesting imminent revelation or renewal.

But satisfaction sags as fairytale potential gives way to something more quotidian. There are hints of intricacy, patterns that might have been, but as the magic recedes, characters who promise to be round fall into flatness, and suddenly this fairytale of New York collapses into chatter and explication. What, we wonder, is it all for?

Predictably, Cunningham ends in valorising Barrett’s gentle romanticism, offering us a lesson on the power of naive faith, much like Andersen did before him. As for Tyler, through him we learn that you can’t force artistic inspiration. Before you can write about love, or grief, or any other emotion, you first need to let yourself experience it to the full.

But what of the limited value of knowledge derived from experience? This novel, though not without its attractions, particularly in the artful way it plays on the shifting and irregular nature of desire, seems somehow empty. It smacks of sentiment for sentiment’s sake. Imaginative language surrenders to the ordinary and, in a poetic sense, is stripped of authenticity. A sad fate, even if they do all live happily ever after.

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