Waxing Press

Book Review: Ice by Anna Kavan

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

Civilization-ending ice approaches. A woman is pursued. That’s the gist of Anna Kavan's Ice. One may say simple, ambiguous, but wonder what the point is. Well, through simplicity and grand ambiguousness, Kavan creates a kind of palimpsest where the text on the page codes and signifies the subtext, the meanings, but never directly takes them on or acknowledges them, making this novel one fully open for myriad readings and interpretations that reward revisits and long thinking-overs. Meanwhile, Kavan threads a narrative seam about power dynamics in this world where women are stripped of agency, and their will and desires are ignored by men. The narrator’s monomaniacal pursuit of the unnamed girl becomes a blunder as he traipses the world seeking this woman who holds his obsessions but returns no sentiments of the kind—in fact, she actively repels and turns away his advances. However, in this world, the woman is controlled by the powerful men around her.

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Because the girl’s voice and agency are smudged out by the narrator, by the ice, she is unable to develop as a full character—she is objectified as a beautiful young creature whose sexual allure seems to be the only thing drawing in the narrator as he spends no time accounting any deep bond shared mutually. There is no hint to the origin of his idée fixe. As his pursuit of her spans the novel, two things remain constant: the ice is coming and the girl wants nothing to do with the narrator nor her other would-be captor (and nemesis to the narrator), the Warden. The end of the novel is chilling, to pardon the pun, and extends the examination of socio-cultural hegemony, and bodily autonomy to darker depths.

As a dystopian novel, Kavan eschews typical politicizing and theorizing about a future in totalitarian chaos. Instead, the apocalyptic setting serves to zoom way in on the dynamic of male-female relationships (a totalitarianism of its own ilk), how power affects even on the smallest scale of person-to-person. How dominance becomes normalized.

Finally, Kavan’s style is supremely unique here—a dystopian book with a sci-fi premise told like a noir where the narrator seamlessly (and without any kind of meta-indication to the reader) slips in and out of dream-like hallucinations, which seem to go unnoticed by him—or, at least, un-commented upon. The effortless, fluvial feeling of this style is unlike anything I’ve read, even some of the more hallucinatory moments of Pynchon. And even more, it is employed in such a smart way as to erode and crumble away any modicum of reliability in the narrator’s storytelling, as well as in a reader's own sensibilities to comprehend what’s really happening and not.

An incredible and incredibly unique novel—one whose closing sentence I cannot forget.