Book Review: A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford – a dual-narrative of family secrets and Arctic adventure

Here’s a new novel from an author with a knack for dramatic Scottish settings. A Woman Made of Snow weaves together two stories, the first set just after World War Two. Caro has a history degree from Cambridge and a new baby. She had envisaged a new life with hubby Alasdair in London, both of them with university posts, but little Felicity came too soon. Now she’s stuck near Dundee with an interfering mother-in-law who keeps dropping in with well-meaning advice. Caro feels she has to have things tidy all the time just in case Martha appears.

Rents in town are expensive so the young family have a cottage on the family estate. When a pipe bursts and the cottage is flooded, there’s nothing for it but to move in with Martha who’s rattling around on her own in a picturesque castle. A skeleton uncovered by builders after the flood sends shockwaves, and Caro and Martha can’t help wondering if it isn’t Alasdair’s great-grandmother whose name has been scratched out of all family records. Caro uses her skills as a researcher to uncover the story of the woman and speculates who the skeleton might be.

Meanwhile the story switches back to the late 1880s and we meet Charlotte who is in love with childhood friend, Oliver. Only Oliver is in love with Charlotte’s sister. A night on the tiles to soothe an aching heart leads Oliver to sign up as ship’s surgeon on the Narhwal, a whaling ship setting off for the Arctic. How the two plot threads are connected to the missing great-grandmother and the skeleton in the garden make for a pacy plot unravelling to a dramatic climax.

While this all adds up to an enthralling story, Gifford takes time to develop a number of themes, including the awkwardness that often arises between a devoted mother and her daughter-in-law. There’s some class snobbery – Alasdair’s sister Pippa describes Caro as ‘suburban’ as if that’s one of the worst things imaginable. You really feel for Caro, missing her career, managing a baby in a chilly castle, and not fitting in. Other issues such as colonisation and racism get a look in, revealed gently through the story.

But mostly I raced through the book to find out what happened. There’s tragedy of course, not surprising since there’s a body in the garden, and my heart-strings were well and truly tugged. However I couldn’t help feel that this might have been a more powerful novel if the two malefactors in it – one for each timeframe – weren’t quite so obviously twisted, and the ending a little less all tied up and perfect. It’s just a small complaint, as overall this is a solid, entertaining novel, but I feel a little disappointed. So it’s a three and a half out of five from me.

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