'Cold Enough for Snow' by Jessica Au
'I said that I too sometimes did not understand what I saw in galleries, or read in books.'—Review #189
Who among us is not completely exhausted right now? I am burnt out. My mind is tired. So when I had to choose a book after slogging through the word jungles of ‘The World Goes On,’ I wanted something short, direct and composed of conventional sentences. Luckily, ‘Cold Enough for Snow’ by Jessica Au was handy.
Here’s the cover:
Au, of Melbourne, Australia, won the inaugural Novel Prize, a collective award given by Giramondo Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions and New Directions to recognize and publish ‘works which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.’ The novel follows a woman and her mother who converge for a vacation in:
As they see the sites, the woman recalls events from her near and distant past. Among them: a relative’s funeral where, as a child, she misbehaves; a caged-bird shop where an uncle falls in love; a sister, now a doctor, who threw tantrums in youth; a face sculpted by her artist father-in-law that she stares into in search of meaning; and a university professor with a home full of artistic and intellectual curios that contrast the woman’s seemingly haphazard upbringing. Between these digressions, the woman prods her mother into reminiscences while also trying to make new shared memories of the galleries, shrines and other stops on their trip. The threads of the past and present weave into an exploration of how we each experience the world, what details we remember and how our insights about those things—whether a lived moment or a work of art—relate to those of others. Two scenes stand out. In one, the woman and her mother are in a gallery looking at a painting by Monet. I was surprised not to find many Monet GIFs, but this, while not exactly right, is close enough:
The woman tells her mother about when, years earlier, she first saw the painting elsewhere. This is, simply, beautiful:
It felt like the artist was looking at the field with two gazes. The first was the gaze of youth, awakening to a dawn of pink light on the grass, and looking with possibility on everything, the work he had done just the day before, the work he had still to do in the future. The second was the gaze of an older man, perhaps older than Monet had been when he painted them, that was looking at the same view, and remembering these earlier feelings and trying to recapture them, only he was unable to do so without infusing it with his own sense of inevitability.
Aren’t we all looking at life with these two gazes? One toward the future, and one that’s searching for where all the time went? Is this why we tell stories, or make memories together, or create art? To record moments in time, whether beautiful or melancholy, so we can revisit and reinterpret them knowing deep down that they have the power to endure beyond death? I’ll be thinking about this for a while. I’ll also be thinking about another scene, when the woman is recalling a job in a restaurant, where a male customer stops her on a very busy night to tell her an innocuous story. She describes how he took something from her then, precious time she will never get back. I empathized with her frustration at being powerless in that moment, forced to be present in someone else’s story when her attention was needed elsewhere. Like her, I wanted to:
‘Cold Enough for Snow’ is beautifully written and a quick read. I flew through it in a day. It gave me much to chew on about art, memory and how we understand each other, and it also reminded me that I want to plan a similar trip with my mother. We had discussed going to Rome before the pandemic. I hope we can go someday. And I hope all of you you will read this book.
How it begins:
When we left the hotel it was raining, a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October. I said that where we were going was not far—we would only need to get to the station, the same one that we had arrived at yesterday, and then catch two trains and walk a little down some small streets until we got to the museum. I got out my umbrella and opened it, and pulled up the zipper of my coat. It was early morning and the street was filled with people, most walking away from the station, rather then towards it as we were. All the while, 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. The rain was gentle, and consistent. It left a fine layer of water on the ground, which was not asphalt, nut a series of small, square tiles, if you cared enough to notice.
We had arrived the night before. My plane landed an hour before my mother’s and I waited for her at the airport. I was too tired to read but collected my bags and bought us two tickets for one of the express trains, as well as a bottle of water and some cash from the ATM. I wondered if I should buy more—some tea perhaps, or something to eat, but I did not know how she would be feeling when she landed. When she came out of the gates, I recognised her immediately, even from a distance, somehow by the way she held herself or the way she walked, without being able to clearly see her face. Up close, I noticed that she continued to dress with care: a brown shirt with pearl buttons, tailored pants and small items of jade. It had always been that way. Her clothes were not expensive, but were chosen with attention to the cut and fit, the subtle combination of textures. She looked like a well-dressed woman in a movie from maybe twenty or thirty years ago, both dated and elegant. I saw too that she had with her a large suitcase, the same one I remembered from our childhood. She’d kept it on top pf the cupboard in her room, where it had loomed over us, mostly unused, only brought down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like when her father died, and then her brother. There was hardly a mark on it, and even now, it seemed almost new.
‘Cold Enough for Snow’ by Jessica Au was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2022. 94 pages. The New Directions edition is $13.90 at Bookshop.org.
In the last issue, you voted for the book to be featured in the July 31 newsletter. The votes are in, and you chose:
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #188
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Until next time,