Short and Careful

 You can read Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au in one sitting. Then you might have to read it again. It is short, carefully worded, and elusive.

A daughter and her mother are meeting in Japan for a short holiday, the daughter hopes to build their relationship, but as the title suggests there is a chill, and while it only rains on their holiday, the relationship seems almost cold enough for snow. The distance between them is barely breached as the daughter leads her mother on the carefully curated holiday to carefully curated museums on carefully chosen train rides.

“My mother stayed close to me as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other but continue to drift further and further apart.”

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow

They are careful with each other. It seems. And yet, the mother has agreed to the holiday by ‘protesting less’ and as we only hear from the daughter’s point of view, her narration gives her mother a limited, filtered voice, and is this the nature of their relationship?

The mother communicates through a book of astrology; ‘People born on your birthday, she said, are idealistic in their youth. In order to be truly free they need to realise the impossibility of their dreams and thus be humbled and only then with they be happy.”

The daughter communicates through a wall of art and art books and conversations feel like teaching moments. When asked about her work, the daughter sidesteps and explains with an analogy about a painting technique.

“I didn’t answer at first, and then I said that in many old paintings, one could discover what was called a pentimento, an earlier layer of something that the artist had chosen to paint over. Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a colour that had been changed, but other times, they could be as significant as a whole figure, an animal, or a piece of furniture. I said that in this way too, writing was just like a painting. It was the only way that one could go back and change the past, to make things not as they were, but as we wished they had been, or rather as we saw it. I said, for this reason, it was better for her not to trust anything she read.”
Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow

The last sentence – do not trust what you read – is an interesting one, and Pocket Bookclub, while discussing this book, was intrigued by reviews that suggest the mother is already dead. Certainly, the narrator is an unreliable one. There is something ghostly about the mother, if only that the daughter is unable to see her mother as a whole, only filtered by the screen of herself. But, is this not how we all see other people? The daughter is driven by the need to understand and categorise and perhaps the point of the book is that the death of her mother, whether in the future or the past is something the daughter cannot curate or control.

“I asked my mother what she believed about the soul and she thought for a moment. Then, looking not at me but at the hard, white light before us, she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. When she was growing up, she said that she had never thought of herself in isolation, but rather as inextricably linked to others. Nowadays, she said, people were hungry to know everything, thinking that they could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner. But, she said, in fact, there was no control, and understanding would not lessen any pain.”

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow

Another element of the distance between the mother and daughter is one of culture and upbringing. The mother whose first language is Cantonese, emigrated from Hong Kong to a Western country (let’s assume Australia) and the daughter attended catholic schools and is enamored with Greek myths. Perhaps most practically we see this at dinner in the restaurant.

The way she used her chopsticks to move things from one plate to another, holding them with her fingers so that the ends never crossed, had always looked so elegant to me. I held my chopsticks the wrong way, jabbing and crossing them, and whenever I tried to emulate her style, I could not, and always ended up dropping things.

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow

This novella is far from little. It is calm and restrained as are the two travelling companions. It is not for people who are driven to read for the plot. They can have Stephen King instead. I suggest Cold Enough for Snow for readers who like to be intrigued and want to float into a dream of sensations and meditative soliloquies. One final quote that sums up the book and the relationship.

She spoke about other tenants, of goodness and giving, the accumulation of kindness like a trove of wealth. She was looking at me then and I knew that she wanted me to be with her on this, to follow her, but to my shame, I found that I could not and worse, that I could not even pretend. Instead, I looked at my watch and said that visiting hours were almost over and that we should probably go.”

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow

The Pocket Bookclub raged against a book of literary cocktails that only included quotes from men. We embarked on a cunttail project, inventing a cunttail for every book we read in 2022. We made a literary cunttail book! What’s wrong with the word cunt? Nothing

Literary Cunttails 2022 is hand-drawn by Miriama and includes every recipe. Get a free copy.

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