The Snow Song
I’ve followed Sally Gardner’s writing career for a long time now, ever since she first started writing (and illustrating sometimes) books for younger children, my daughter adored her Fairy Shopping picture book. Next, she wrote a series of wonderful children’s novels, moving on to YA (I reviewed The Door That Led to Where for Shiny here and the superb The Double Shadow here), winning the Carnegie Medal and a Costa along the way. She is still writing children’s books alongside the others.
A couple of years ago, I read Tinder, her superb retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Tinderbox, which moved further into the crossover zone with adult fiction. Her latest novels have been classed as adult fiction, but still retain the fairytale and fantasy elements she is renowned for. On her website she prefers to group them together with the YA ones as books for ‘older readers’ which avoids all the pigeonholes we tend to slot books into.
Which brings me to The Snow Song, a novel steeped in folk and fairy tales, set in a rural eastern Europe some time ago. Edith lives in a remote village on a forested mountainside, which is often cut off from the outside world. She lives with her father, a cabinet maker and alcoholic. The village is ruled by its elders, all men completely hide-bound by tradition. One of the most powerful is the butcher, and he wants to marry Edith. Her father is all for the match, which would bring him prestige and money–naturally Edith is totally against it. The butcher is a boorish tyrant, old and fat, her life wouldn’t be worth living under such a man.
As the novel begins, a young man arrives in the village, playing a violin. Edith asks him what he is playing? ‘Snow Song,’ he replies. She is instantly smitten, and invites him to dinner without even asking his name! The butcher sees her talking to the stranger, and it makes him cross. Her father is also cross at her having invited a ‘gypsy’ to dinner. Demetrius is a shepherd it turns out and will soon be taking his sheep up to the high pastures after the lambing is over. Meanwhile, he tells Edith stories and encourages her to tell her own. They fall in love, and Demetrius asks her father for her hand in marriage, and he drunkenly assents, but later consults the butcher who suggests some conditions:
‘You are her father. Tell them they can’t be married until after the harvest supper and not a day before. As for Edith–make her swear on her dead mother’s bible that if the shepherd isn’t back by the first snowfall, she will marry me. If she does that–swear, I mean, in front of the mayor–then you can forget about the money you owe me.’
Demetrius has to leave for the mountain, and swears he will return for the harvest supper. You can broadly guess that he won’t return and possibly why, but Edith still hopes. She gradually stops talking and by the night of the first snow, she is mute. The next morning, her black hair has turned white.
Here, the novel takes a different tack as the butcher gleefully goes about the plans for his wedding a month later, hiring Flora the seamstress to make a fine wedding dress for Edith, against the local traditions of wearing folk costume to bring luck. The butcher is heard to declare, ‘Give me a silent woman any day,’ but Edith’s muteness is perplexing to him.
Misha, a young man and the butcher’s grandson, has no love for his grandfather, being mistreated by him and thought of as the village idiot by everyone since he was a small child. He reveres Edith as a sister; she taught him to read, recognising that he is no simpleton. Misha goes looking for Demetrius with the search party, but it’s all rather perfunctory, leaving Misha confused, but determined to protect Edith.
All too soon, her wedding day to the butcher is approaching, and I can say little more about what happened and is yet to happen in this tale, except that magic is in the air of the forest, and the women of the village will rise up against the elders. Will this help Edith get her voice back?
The air of this story feels very Grimm, but brought forward into the late 19thC, or maybe even later–I base that purely on the fact that Flora owns a sewing machine (Singer got his patent in 1851). There is a sense of menace in the actions of the butcher, who is always just the ‘butcher’, never named, and you hope that justice will be done eventually in a suitably Grimm way. Gardner weaves her customary light magic touch around the central love story of Edith and Demetrius which gives Edith time to grieve for her lost love in a beautiful fairytale way. The folk of this remote area are very superstitious too; in her acknowledgments Gardner notes a debt to the Saxon and Roma peoples and their folktales.
Source: Own copy. Sally Gardner*, The Snow Child (Harper HQ, 2020) Hardback, 288 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link).
* Some editions bear Sally’s alternate pen-name ‘Wray Delaney’ under which her adult books are also published.