Ice by Anna Kavan

Peter Owen Modern Classics
with foreword by Christopher Priest
158 pages.

Ice (written in 1967, five years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) is the sort of speculative fiction that truly lives up the label of slip-stream. It is at once a modernist novel in tone and character, a post-modern novel in terms of narrative structure, and a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel with its insistent, looming (and often surreal) natural catastrophe.

Anna Kavan (1901-1968, born Helen Emily Woods) is a terribly fascinating and sad character, and it would be easy to frame any review through the lens of her addictions and sporadic mental illness; however, to do so empties her writing of its intrinsic haunting quality, only to replace it with a biographical “solution.” Better, I think, to dwell in the text, relating the aspects that at times confound, frustrate, and entice.

Ice begins with a nameless protagonist driving through a mounting storm to visit a waifish woman with whom he has had some relationship (problematic, disturbing, and visceral). We soon meet her and the man with whom she is staying, an artist. These three people comprise the novel’s only main characters—but how they shift and twist as the story creeps forward! As the man travels across what seems to be Europe and Eastern Europe, the woman disappears and reappears like a mirage, and always in the presence of the other man who shifts between chummy to threatening without reason.

This plasticity is compelling. None of the characters are likable (though interesting), but reading as the aristocratic first-person narrator (reminiscent of Geoffrey Household’s protagonist in Rogue Male), we travel a world always under pressure of annihilation, and watch as this nameless imminent doom warps everyone around it. Kavan’s prose often mirrors her content in its perspectival shifting; early in the narrative, the narrator describes the girl running through forest (which in itself is strange as the narrator is much to far away to see her), and as he continues to describe her, we soon lose sentences including “I” and simply read declarative writing:

Twenty invisible people could have been near me, but I saw the ghostly grey coat flicker among the firs, and occasionally caught a glimpse of its checked lining. […] The trees seemed to obstruct her with a deliberate malice. […] She saw the massed armies of forest trees encamped on all sides, the mountain wall above bristling with trees like guns. […] In the deepening dusk every horror could be expected. She was afraid to look, tried not to see the spectral shapes rising from the water, but felt them come gliding towards her and fled in panic (48-50).

Nothing remains static in Kavan’s novel. Our narrator is unstable and Kavan makes this apparent in the fourth paragraph of the book when the narrator remarks, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me “(6), and who eventually loses even his own sense of self in the presence of the other man. The ecological disaster flows in an out as well so that a glacier’s appearance can at times seem like a tsunami and at others feels as if it still may be years off (though never once in the text is there any talk of resistance or solution). In Kavan’s world, the end is already  here, and her characters at best can only gain a little time.

Genre: apocalyptic, Weird fiction

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