HOUSE UNDER SNOW by Jill Bialosky
Genre: Fiction and Literature
How Acquired: Half Price Books
Reading Began: December 13, 2004
Completed Reading: December 15, 2004
Overall rating: Six out of ten
Recommendation to others: This is a sad story yet completely engaging from beginning to end. And a quick read. It is for anyone who has loved someone in spite of themselves, and for anyone who has attempted to hold together their world when the end result may not seem worth the fight.
Why I chose to read this book: An Entertainment Weekly review made this book sound haunting and beautiful. They were not wrong.
Further reading by this author: Bialosky has some poetry collections and the like, but nothing really jumped out at me as my taste.
Comments: Haunting is the best word to describe this book. The characters are not so rich as they are ethereal, though they are developed enough for the reader to relate to them. The narrator, Anna, is the second of three daughters who essentially raise themselves while their mother retreats from life into a world of grief that is shadowed by a desire to be loved as she once was. The story is told in shifting time: flashbacks to the years of the daughter’s youth and the present situation of her relationship with her teenage lover. It is a great while into the story before these two time periods become intertwined and fulfill the purpose of the greater tale, yet the book is never disjointed, never boring, never anything less than engaging and sometimes even exquisite. I found myself fully compelled by the notion of how one’s love for a mother can shape one’s own future, whether we acknowledge that connection or not. House Under Snow is nothing short of provocative.
I remember our house in winter—the endless white madness of the snow and the rush of cold air as it moved into the living room, circulated through our narrow rooms, blew the door shut behind it—as if to remind me how fragile happiness is, how easily it can shatter like a pane of glass. That’s why I’m compelled to tell this story—don’t we all have one secret that has shaped us we are burning to reveal?—to convince myself that I’m entitled to my own life.
We never forget childhood. It is always planted there like a white house on top of a steep hill. (pp. 4-5)
More troops were being sent to Vietnam; each day thousands of American soldiers were killed. Meanwhile my mother occupied herself with cutouts while my sisters and I played on the floor making flimsy houses out of a deck of cards. She clipped prints, photographs, pictures of certain objects she liked: furniture, gardens, bouquets of flowers, women in exciting, fashionable dresses. She had acquired a peculiar passion for snipping and saving. Soon she had shoe boxes and hatboxes and folders overflowing with samples of things in the world she loved. When I asked what she was doing, she said, “I’m trying to capture something,” and then drifted away again. (p. 13)
What do we know of ourselves and the world when we are sixteen? The suburban walls of our community shielded us from the Vietnam War, hid the fact that our grandparents and great-grandparents had suffered world wars and concentration camps. Even the racial tension, violence, and poverty in downtown Cleveland seemed, from Chagrin Falls, as if they were happening worlds away. That summer the universe I inhabited narrowed down to my mother, my sisters, and Austin. … I suppose that was the purpose of the postwar suburbs: to separate and protect us from all that had been lost and return us to the private lives within our families, which once had been ripped apart. (p. 78)
Like my mother I found comfort in a certain kind of feeling that would overcome me when I looked at a cornflower blue sky, or a simple wildflower, or a complicated tree. But the feeling wouldn’t last long before I’d be flooded with anxiety. I knew at an early age that you couldn’t live peacefully in isolation. There would always be a window to hold your nose against and wish that what was behind it was your own. (p. 84)
It still haunts me. The thought that a woman alone is like a kind of living death—that’s how it felt being my mother’s witness. Perhaps it was better to die, if you knew that in life you could never quiet the anxiousness inside you. Is it possible, I wondered, to be vital without physical touch or love? How long before desire, unfed, becomes dangerous? (p. 110)
“Why have you saved all those things?”
“To remind me.”
“Of all that was once mine. People don’t understand that the relationship with the dead doesn’t go away. Nor the love. It’s just so private now. People think we’ve forgotten. But we don’t forget.” (p. 114)
I decided that if I had to describe what love meant, really, not in the abstract or the sentimental or the way I’d imagined it before, that I’d say it was completely irrational, made up of so many opposite emotions, the kind that couldn’t exist without the other: bliss and sadness, courage and fear, adoration and disgust. (p. 126)
When I’d first read Wuthering Heights, as a child, I was devastated when Cathy marries Edgar. Her betrayal of Heathcliff was unfathomable. But reading it again, I saw what comfort she found in Edgar. Cathy and Edgar are counterparts. Cathy finds security in that which is solely different from her own nature. And Edgar finds temporary bliss in the presence of someone capable of such passion. Austin and I were too much alike. I knew that what was between Austin and me could only exist in brief flashes, like the flame of a match before it is extinguished.