IIn a scene from Cold Enough for Snow, the unnamed narrator explains to her mother why she loves Greek myths. They function like a camera obscura, she says, but for human nature: “By looking indirectly at the thing they wanted to focus on, they could sometimes see it even more clearly than with their own eyes.” What, exactly, our narrator might be focusing on drives this novella like a ghost.
Cold Enough for Snow is the second book by Melbourne writer Jessica Au. This earned him the first Novel Award in 2020 and comes a decade after his acclaimed debut, Cargo. The plot is simple; “misleadingly” therefore, as some Comments noted: mother and adult daughter visit Japan, see the sights, admire the art and food, go home. What we hear of their conversation is everyday and low-key, frustratingly at odds with the narrator’s pressing thirst for connection. A whirlwind of memories of interactions with others: her partner Laurie, with whom she plans to have a child; the lecturer who introduced him to “the classics”; a troubling customer at the Chinese restaurant where she once worked.
What binds these seemingly undirected reminiscences is a concern for care. The narrator’s mother and uncle, born in Hong Kong, are “cautious” in their actions, pay “attention to [their] clothing and appearance. She recalls her mother “perfectly fixing and adjusting” her childhood clothes; the “carefully chosen” objects in the house of his lecturer; Laurie “carefully measures and planes the wood” for her father’s workshop. “Attention brought to its highest degree, wrote Simone Weil, is the same thing as prayer. This presupposes faith and love.
Au’s quiet, relentless focus would be hard to capture in a longer book – but this short story is graceful and to the point. Like the narrator fine-tuning the aperture of his Nikon camera, Au seems to be saying, we have to choose our scale, which we pay attention to. The narrator, searching for a deeper meaning, is clouded by the possibility that this choice is simply random. She envies Laurie’s ability to “see things others might miss” and warns about “little details” in Japan’s low-key museums, bathhouses and bookstores. Glazed ceramics, fabrics, foliage, paintings: meaning floats on the surface, then disperses, as on lapping water. She takes her mother to an Impressionist exhibition in Tokyo, full of “paths and gardens and ever-changing light, [showing] the world not as it was, but a version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams.
The two women walk peacefully through shady parks and forests, subways and muted shops. An older Japan – of villages, lanterns, temples – “halfway between cliché and truth”, sparkles under the “gentle rain”. By contrast, the narrator’s home in Australia seems soulless and overly bright, with its vast highways, sprawling suburbs and screeching birds. The objects that emerge from her trip – a jewel, a photo, a bowl – betray her desire for a more intimate scale.
What the narrator wants are ways to “know someone and have them know me”. The trip seems obsessively planned around experiences that might spark vocabulary sharing with his mother, until the time of the evening that “might be nice” for a certain restaurant. A melancholic detachment seeps into all this perfect stillness – an anxious feeling of being out of the moment, not much different from that seen in Katherine Brabon’s The Shut Ins or Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies. Another lost vocabulary hovers: her mother’s first language is Cantonese, hers is English – “we only ever spoke one”.
Cold Enough for Snow is filled with meticulous observations: the temperature (“the subtropical feel, the smell of steam and tea and rain”); color (“a blue plate, the color of agate, on which white flowers, probably lotuses, were painted, and … a mud-brown bowl, the interior of which was the color of eggshells”); light (as a rule, “milky”). The narrator wonders about the way she too is observed – by her lover as she falls asleep, in the way “one is able to look at someone one knows well”. One way to know anything, perhaps the only way, is to look.
Finally, we come up against what is not knowable. At has mentioned his taste for “reversing narrative expectation… open endings, scenes where nothing happens but where everything happens”. Cold Enough for Snow is exactly that, a book of inference and little mysteries. The stories, memories and images Au puts on the table defy easy conclusions – like the lines of a screen painting the narrator admires: “Some were strong and precise, while others bled and s faded, giving the impression of vapor.And yet, when you looked up, you saw something: mountains, dissolution, form and color flowing ever downward. Aesthetic, opaque, endlessly unfolding.