In a climate change-affected dystopian setting, recognisable as the author’s home of New Zealand although not explicitly named, Snow is a young teenage girl whose stepmother wants her dead. To this end, she tasks a hunter with taking Snow into the forest near their mountain chateau, killing her and bringing back her heart as proof. The hunter, however, takes pity on her, returning instead to the chateau with the heart of a freshly killed bear and leaving Snow to the mercy of the winter forest. This should in itself be a death sentence, but Snow survives in exile, first as a live-in drudge for a rough group of miners living deep in the forest, then in the wilderness.
Snow’s only friend is Little Bear, the cub of the bear killed by the hunter, who grows into Snow’s sidekick. Snow herself wears dog skins and the head and scruff of the dead mother bear; together they cut a wild figure. But it’s an outfit she must discard when fugitive life can no longer satisfy her, and she enters the city to face her enemy, to claim her identity and her inheritance, ‘to try to clear the way to a different kind of living’. This process of clearing resonates throughout the book, as characters consider the mistakes of the past, symbolised by permanently overcast skies caused by the greatest human error of all, failure to act on climate change. It is a story of reconciliations and rumination on what constitutes identity—birthright, deeds, or the connections we forge with others?
It is also a story preoccupied with Snow’s embodied reality, in which all the challenges she faces are to do with her being a physical presence in the world, and the value and meaning placed on that by herself and others. Her vulnerability takes many forms, with her beauty endangering and protecting her in turn. There is safety in staying with the miners until they realise her identity—and until she grows into a desirable young woman—and then no glimmer of emotional attachment delays the urgency of her escape. Snow’s subsequent years in the vast, cold wilderness, where the sun never comes out, are focused on subsistence. Women have long given up a lot—have been expected to give up a lot – for safety and survival, and to be grateful for it. But Snow cannot reconcile herself to this expectation.
If any of the story’s plot points sound familiar, it’s because Snow is based on the folk tale ‘Snow White’. The time is ripe for a re-telling of an old story about female rivalry, vanity and power. Like many stories with feminist themes, it’s about what girls and women venture to ask of the world and how the world replies. Although Snow’s relationship with earlier versions is recognisable, it is less of a re-telling and more as if Inverarity has pulled a thread from a great tapestry of storytelling and used it as the warp for weaving something entirely new. Readers will bring various levels of familiarity with other Snow White stories to their reading, and it’s hard to know how much currency the tale has these days. In any case, even to the familiar reader, the similarities recede, and we are left with an original story that is both folkloric and dystopian in flavour. The author’s background as an editor is visible in its even pace and thoughtful, well-crafted sentences. Ultimately Snow is an unusual and thematically provocative read that offers up something to lovers of fantasy, dystopia, and anyone with an interest in the strange, symbolic power of folk stories.
by Gina Inverarity
Publisher: Wakefield Press
Publication date: April 2020