Book Review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks – a stunning historical read with a strong emotional pull

Sebastian Faulks regularly delivers an engrossing read, beautifully written and meticulously researched, often about some interesting aspect of history. The history never takes over the story – it’s always about the characters – but it gives you a very well imagined stage upon which the characters reveal themselves.

Snow Country is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which, Human Traces, completely passed me by. Published in 2005, Human Traces is about two friends, one English, one French, both fascinated by the workings of the mind. They go into psychiatry together, develop an asylum in Austria. Of course, Austria is where Freud worked, Vienna the birthplace of psychoanalysis. But Europe is about to be torn apart by the First World War.

Picking up Snow Country, it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first book – Faulks fills you in with everything you need to know, through the eyes of its two main characters. Anton escapes his bourgeois upbringing and his parents’ plan for him to take over his father’s sausage empire to study philosophy in Vienna. He starts submitting articles to newspapers, with an eye to becoming a journalist. Here he meets Delphine, a piano teacher, older and more sophisticated than Anton, but perhaps her charm lies in the secrets she hides. World War One intervenes and the two are separated, leaving Anton at sea emotionally as well as traumatised by his experiences at the front.

Lena couldn’t be more different from Delphine. Barely literate, she’s the child of an alcoholic mother who scrapes a living doing menial work and occasional prostitution. But Lena has the determination to make something of herself and sets her sights on Rudolph a law student who finds her a job for a respectable clothing merchandiser. Through Lena and Rudolph we get a snapshot of the political situation in Vienna post-war as the Nazi regime comes to power in Germany. While Rudolph is a politically active idealist, Lena lives for the moment, is open-hearted and spontaneous.

The stories of Lena and Anton eventually converge at an asylum by a lake, the Schloss Seeblick where Lena, escaping Vienna, takes a job, and where Anton is to research an article. The setting is oddly calming for both of them and drives each of them to dare to plan a different future. Anton has thoughtful conversations with Martha, the daughter of one of the asylum’s founders, now a trained psychotherapist.

…I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular. He seems to be a deformed animal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are obsessive,’ Anton said. ‘We appear to have bigger brains than other creatures, but we behave in a way that’s contrary to our own interests. These harmful passions that drive us mad with love or with the need to slaughter one another. We don’t seem very well … evolved.’

As you might expect, Faulks takes the reader to some interesting places, such as the building of the Panama Canal, a huge undertaking that risks the lives of its labour force daily. Anton covers the story for a newspaper, as well as a murder trial in Paris. There’s a strong emotional pull too – both Lena and Anton are in their own ways broken hearted, suffering tragedy or loss. It’s a very moving book, as well as historically interesting, and gives you a lot to think about.

Snow Country isn’t the kind of book you race through to see what happens. The writing is such a joy it is worth taking your time over it. But you can’t help wondering how much of what is going on here is a set-up for the third book. I envisage World War II will have a part to play. In the meantime I am curious to check out Human Traces, and hope we don’t have to wait another decade or two before Book Three. This one gets a four and a. half out of five from me.

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

This novel is a very intimate look at someone’s mental illness, which could in itself drive the reader into a depressed state if it weren’t for the scintillating prose which is a times laugh-out-loud funny. Martha Friel is turning forty at the beginning of the book, her marriage crumbling around her, as she looks back at her life to pinpoint the moments of significance to try and make sense of it all.

She is the child of eccentric parents. Her mother is a sculptor of minor significance who drinks a lot and drives her father, a poet who cannot quite bring himself to publish a long awaited collection, to leave them. You could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you look at Martha and her mother, who is difficult and at times cruel. But her father always returns, shutting himself away in his study among his books and poetic thoughts. Martha has a sister, Ingrid, who manages to lead a more balanced life, marrying Hamish and producing unplanned-for children with alarming regularity.

Then there is Aunt Winsome and Uncle Rowland who live in Belgravia and have funded Martha’s parents’ house and the girls’ schooling because being an unpublished poet and a sculptor of minor significance is no way to support a family. There are cousins, Nicholas, Oliver and Jessamine, as well as Oliver’s friend Patrick who’s father lives in Hong Kong and who has nowhere else to go at Christmas. As well as the closeness between the two sisters, much of the story is that of Patrick and Martha’s relationship.

That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this any more, both of us thinking it would be like this forever.

Martha’s terrible rages, her problems with sounding normal at work or at parties, her unreliability, her snarky remarks, make her difficult to get on with and yet she inspires great affection from those who make the effort. She’s smart and shows odd moments of empathy.

The reason I had gone to London was for Peregrine’s funeral.
He had fallen down the central staircase at the Wallace Collection and died when he struck his head on a marble newel post at the bottom. One of his daughters gave the eulogy and looked earnest when she said it was exactly how he would have wanted to go. I wept, realising how much I loved him, that he was my truest friend, and that his daughter was right. If it hadn’t been him, Peregrine would have been acutely jealous of anyone who got to die dramatically, in public, surrounded by gilt furniture.

And while we get to see what Martha’s unspecified condition looks like, and the difficulties of getting appropriate medical help, the novel also gives thought to what makes people happy, the simple things often that people take for granted. Maybe it’s only when life is at its darkest, that you get to really understand this. I loved the characters in particular. Martha’s family are individually either odd or difficult, but they are all interesting and have their redeeming points. Patrick has his own sorrows – his lack of family, his struggles with his problematic love for Martha.

Meg Mason writes with such flair and understanding I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Sorrow and Bliss. It is one of those funny/sad books, which can be entertaining and profound in equal measure. Mason is a New Zealand born author who lives in Sydney and this is her first book published in Britain. It is easily one my favourite reads for the year and really deserves its five out five from me.