Ever since I watched the film adaptation of “Practical Magic” and, later, read Alice Hoffman’s excellent “Turtle Moon” I’ve been meaning to read another Alice Hoffman novel. And, since this review will be the hundredth book review since I got back into reading regularly several months ago, I thought that it was the perfect time to do this.
But, since both new and second-hand copies of Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” were still a bit on the expensive side of things at the time of writing, I looked around online and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 2005 novel “The Ice Queen” instead.
So, let’s take a look at “The Ice Queen”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
[Note: I read the 2006 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “The Ice Queen”, although I’ve decided against showing what the book looks like because the previous owner of the second-hand copy I read has scrawled what appears to be a phone number onto the cover and, on the grounds of privacy, I thought it best not to show this.]
The novel begins with a flashback to the nameless narrator’s childhood, showing how she feels that a single angry thought caused the death of her mother. Since then, she has been racked by self-loathing and has lived a rather cold life. She works in a library, where she becomes an expert on death due to frequent information requests from a local police officer. Although the two of them have several trysts together, she breaks up with him when she realises that he is falling in love with her.
After the death of her grandmother, the narrator agrees to move to Florida with her brother, who is working on a research project into lightning strikes. On the car journey, the narrator thinks about being struck by lightning and, sure enough, it happens to her some time later. Amongst other injuries, the lightning strike removes her ability to see the colour red- turning the world into a cold, icy landscape.
During a support group meeting for lightning strike survivors at the university, she hears about a mysterious recluse called Lazarus Jones who died from a lightning strike and returned to life sometime later. According to the gossip, Lazarus’ body is warmer than usual, giving him the ability to burn things just by touching them. Fascinated, she decides to seek him out….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it, although it sounds like the most random and depressing novel ever written, it is actually one of the most profound and beautiful books that I’ve read recently 🙂 It is a story that is worth reading for the characters, the atmosphere and the way that it is written. And, yes, it is also a novel that will probably make you cry at least a few times.
At it’s heart, this is a novel about fairytales – about the differences between the sanitised moralistic fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the macabre fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, about the difference between reality and fairytales and, most importantly, about the bizarre logic of fairytales.
In particular, how random small things can have a huge influence on other things. This is kind of a running theme throughout the novel with, for example, the course of main character’s entire life being shaped by a single thought that she had when she was a child. It is a theme that is both fascinating and eerily terrifying at the same time.
This fairytale-like atmosphere is also emphasised by a few well-placed fantastical/ magic realist elements throughout the story. Whether it is the narrator’s belief that wishes can cause death, or the fact that one character burns everything he touches, or people returning from the dead or the way that the story depicts lightning, this is one of those stories that is both realistic and fantastical at the same time. These fantasy elements also help to lighten the more depressing elements of the story too, by giving the reader a little bit of emotional distance from the story.
Likewise, this novel contains some brilliant romance elements. Although they are a bit stylised, they have an intensity and a passion to them that really helps to add some vivid warmth to this bleak tale. There’s also a lot of stuff about the blurring of love and obsession, the contrast between fire and ice, how secrets define who we are and lots of other stuff like that. Likewise, the mystery of Lazarus’ backstory and the narrator’s intense curiosity about it also help to add some compelling suspense to the story too.
Emotionally, this novel is incredibly profound. Although it is filled with misery, woe, angst, death, sorrow, fear, self-loathing, guilt and bleakness, this is leavened by both the beauty of Hoffman’s writing style and the inclusion of things like dark humour and profound statements about humanity, life, death and everything else.
Like with Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon”, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it. This is kind of difficult to describe but you get the sense that, for all of the story’s darkness, there’s an underlying warmth, compassion and wisdom lurking in the background.
In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The nameless narrator gets the most characterisation and she is a flawed, realistic character whose entire life and outlook on the world has been shaped by feelings of self-loathing and fear. She’s a misfit who is obsessed with death and prefers to be alone. She’s a really complex and fascinating character (who is kind of like a much less creepy/sociopathic version of the narrator in Kaaron Warren’s “Slights”). The other characters in the story also receive a fair amount of characterisation and they all come across as quirky, flawed, realistic people.
In terms of the writing, this novel is spectacular. Although most of the first-person narration is fairly informal and “matter of fact”, it is filled with numerous small moments of poetry, weirdness, magical descriptions and other beautiful things that really give the story a vivid and unique atmosphere. The combination of all of these things means that the story flows really well – having the pacing of a mild thriller whilst also having the deep atmosphere and intellectual/emotional depth of a literary novel.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. At a wonderfully efficient 211 pages, this story never feels too long 🙂 Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the narration means that this novel is both fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time – this is really difficult to describe. This is one of those stories that just flows really well, which moves slowly yet feels like it is moving quickly. In other words, it is compelling.
All in all, this is a really great novel. It’s a weird dark fairytale that is also filled with magic and profundity. It is both an incredibly beautiful and an incredibly depressing novel. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one of the most profound and well-written novels that I’ve read recently.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.