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Cold Enough for Snow

by Jessica Au

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1296189,658 (3.67)18
A mother and daughter travel from abroad to meet in Tokyo: they walk along the canals through the autumn evenings, escape the typhoon rains, share meals in small cafes and restaurants, and visit galleries to see some of the city's most radical modern art. All the while, they talk: about the weather, horoscopes, clothes, and objects, about family, distance, and memory. But uncertainties abound. Who is really speaking here--is it only the daughter? And what is the real reason behind this elliptical, perhaps even spectral journey? At once a careful reckoning and an elegy, Cold Enough for Snow questions whether any of us speak a common language, which dimensions can contain love, and what claim we have to truly know another's inner world. Selected from more than 1,500 entries, Cold Enough for Snow won the Novel Prize, a new, biennial award offered by New Directions, Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK), and Giramondo (Australia), for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
Winner of the inaugural Novel Prize and thus published simultaneously in the UK and US — Jessica Au's second novel Cold Enough for Snow is a subdued, melancholy meditation on the frustrations of human connection. Its innovation lies in the way that the text itself mirrors the preoccupations of the theme.
The lecturer had spoken about knowledge as an elixir and I said to my mother that this was something I believed in too. In the Catholic school, my sister and I had both studied very hard. If there was anything I did not know, I simply read and re-read everything I could until nothing about it was a mystery to me any longer. In this way I was like the runner in a marathon, made up only of will and perseverance. In school, I had done this repeatedly, and it had worked. There, I had understood everything, and passed everything with the highest marks. During that class, I tried to do the same. I did all the plays, and then the books on the plays, and then the books on those. I watched films and read about artists and directors and poets. Each time, it was like I was travelling at the speed of light, as if I had spent my life living in one dimension, only for its very fabric to tear open and a whole other universe to be revealed. Every time I finished a text, I felt like I was done, but then the same thing would happen again and again, a tearing open of my thoughts, a falling into a vast, unknown space, where air rushed in and all my senses were overwhelmed. It was as if knowledge was truly an elixir, a drug. And yet, something eluded me. By the end of the year, I had written many words on these texts, and now knew them as well as anyone else. I too mentioned them in conversations. I too could be confident, and my thoughts felt rapid and full. But all the same, I felt that there was something else, something fundamental, that I did not understand. (p.27)
Typical of the way the text reveals much more than the words on the page yet also evades a reader's desire to understand its undercurrents, this elegiac excerpt encapsulates the narrator's coming of age. Economically, it shows that adolescent transition from believing that all things are possible and that one can indeed confidently 'know it all', to the painful realisation that even an assiduous effort of will cannot reveal the vast unknown space that complicates all our relationships.

Even in the case of that often closest of relationships, between a mother and daughter.

And sometimes made more difficult by a persistent effort of will...

The plot of this novella is simple. A mother and daughter, no longer living in the same city, travel separately to Tokyo. They traverse a schedule meticulously planned by the daughter, visiting art galleries, shops a church and a temple, eating in cafés and restaurants, walking always with a purpose in the autumn evenings. Though they separate briefly in the shops and galleries to peruse things in their own way, they spend all their time together except when the daughter wants to hike a trail and the mother doesn't — and can't, because this oh-so-compliant mother didn't bring walking shoes as instructed. The significance of the title then comes into view. The daughter planned this trip for the autumn months because it had always been their favourite season. The gardens and parks would then be at their most beautiful then: the late season, everything almost gone. But the mother had asked if the weather would be cold enough for snow, because she had never seen it. This relationship is constrained by this daughter's obsessive need for control, and this mother typically concedes...including with agreement to accompany her daughter on this trip to Japan. In autumn.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2022/05/26/cold-enough-for-snow-by-jessica-au/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | May 25, 2022 |
Zen-like Simplicity & Beauty
Review of the Fitzcarraldo Edition paperback (February 23, 2022)
The one place I wanted to get to that day was a church, reportedly a very beautiful building, designed by a famous architect, in a suburb near Osaka. ... I had some trouble at first finding the church, but eventually we came across it, a low, boxlike building in a quiet neighborhood, and entered. Inside, the walls were made of raw concrete, which absorbed most of the light, making the interior dim and gray. The floor was not flat, but sloped ever so slightly downward, as if pulling everything toward the simple southern altar. On the wall behind the altar, two great cuts had been made, one from floor to ceiling and the other horizontally, so that they resembled a giant cross. As we sat, all our attention was focused on this large shape and the brilliant, white light that streamed through the gaps, in contrast to the subdued atmosphere of the room. The effect was riveting, not unlike staring out at the daylight through the opening of a cave. And perhaps, I said to my mother, this too was what it had felt like to be in the earliest churches, when nature itself was still a force in the world, visceral and holy. I said also that the architect had originally intended the cross to be unsealed, so that air and weather would have gusted through the openings, like the will of god itself. - excerpted from Cold Enough for Snow
See photograph at https://zavvirodaine.com/wp-content/uploads/church-of-the-light.jpg
Photograph of the Church of Light in Osaka, Japan. Image sourced from Zavvi Rodaine.

Jessica Au's description of the church that she and her mother visit in Cold Enough for Snow was so beautiful and intriguing that I just had to look up whether it was a real place, and yes, it was.

This entire memoir-like stream of consciousness novella is like that. It is full of simple descriptive passages of a daughter's and mother's journey through Japan. There are mysterious elements as we only gradually learn the family's background through the occasional interspersed flashback sequences. By the end you will question the reality of what you were reading. Is it happening now or in the past? Are there in fact two people on the journey? What begins as an apparently simple enough travelogue, becomes intriguing and rather wondrous by its end.Whenever I’d asked her what she’d like to visit in Japan, she’d often said she would be happy with anything. The only question she’d asked once was whether, in winter, it was cold enough for snow, which she had never seen.Australian author Jessica Au appears to have only one previous novel credit in her Goodreads bibliography, and that is from 2011, so this gem of a novella could be read as a debut of an author with a compelling descriptive view and voice into the world and the heart.

Trivia and Link
Background sourced from Fitzcarraldo Editions:
Jessica Au won the inaugural Novel Prize in 2020 for Cold Enough for Snow. The novel, selected from over 1500 entries worldwide, was published in English in February 2022 and is set to be published in 18 territories.

The Novel Prize is a new, biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world. It offers $10,000 to the winner and simultaneous publication in the UK and Ireland by the London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions, in Australia and New Zealand by Sydney publisher Giramondo, and in North America by New York’s New Directions. The prize rewards novels which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.
( )
  alanteder | Apr 21, 2022 |
In this brief, contemplative, and emotionally restrained novel, an unnamed narrator in her late twenties invites her aging mother to accompany her on a trip. “I was beginning to feel that it was important,” she observes, “for reasons I could not yet name.” Those reasons may be related to her mother’s age, the sense that there isn’t limitless time to settle problems between them, or to the narrator and her partner’s contemplating whether to have children of their own. The narrator decides on Japan as the destination, believing that the two will be on “equal footing” in a foreign land where both will be “made strangers.” These are puzzling conditions for a trip, and the reader can only suspect there is strain in the relationship, an uncomfortable truth or challenging events that have made it difficult for the pair to get along.

The narrator has been to Japan once before with her partner, Laurie, the son of artists, and she is eager to share the excitement and riches they experienced with her parent. Her Asian mother may also be more at ease “exploring” another part of the continent she was born on. The daughter has taken the reins in the planning of this trip; she’s assiduously researched Shinto and Buddhist shrines, wooded parks, museums and other sites of historical and artistic significance for the two to visit. Not surprisingly, the adventure does not go as planned. This is largely due to the main character’s miscalculations about what her aging mother might be capable of taking in and enjoying, combined with the young woman's lack of insight into their very different value systems. When she and her mother visit museums and historical sites, the narrator cannot refrain from interpreting in the manner of a docent, holding forth about artistic techniques or the cultural context. She’s oblivious to the fact that this information is of no interest to her mother, only something to be politely endured. What the daughter had clearly hoped would be an opportunity for sharing what she values and for gaining her mother's understanding becomes instead a transformative lesson in apprehending what her mother holds to be important.

There is a melancholy tone to this novel, the feeling of an impending ending--and possibly danger. The narrator has decided that the trip will be taken in autumn, the favourite season of both. She has not considered that typhoons can strike at this time. While it is not surprising to travel when “gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful,” it is significant that visiting during the “late season, [with] everything almost gone” should be thought desirable. It appears necessary to the narrator that the natural world reflect the mood and the season of her relationship with her mother.

As a young woman, the protagonist’s mother had emigrated from an impoverished district in Hong Kong. Over the years, she has vaguely alluded to being a witness to war, cruelty, and human despair. In the country she settled in—which goes unnamed, but is likely Australia—she gave her two daughters “all the things that she had been taught to think of and want for herself.” This included having the girls attend a private Catholic school, but not for the quality of education so much as the “plaid skirts and Bibles.” It is notable that not a single mention is made of the girls’ father.

We learn that the narrator studied English literature at university, reading voraciously in order to acquire Western cultural literacy, collecting and hoarding knowledge to compensate for a sense of inadequacy or to fill some undefined inner void. Later, we discover she’s a writer. She values words, aesthetics, art, and nature. Her elder sister, has followed a more pragmatic, less introverted course, electing to study medicine. She’s married with two children. The narrator, on the other hand, is ambivalent about becoming a mother. She recalls an admired classics professor once reflecting “that parents were their children’s fate, not only in the way of the tragedies, but in many other smaller, yet no less powerful ways as well.” The narrator knows and and appears to fear “that if I had a daughter, she would live partly because of the way I had lived, and her memories would be my memories, and she would have no choice in that matter.” It is not just the idea that children carry their parent’s memories (and burdens), however, that troubles the main character, but the worry that her own opportunities for personal fulfillment might be diminished if she were to have a child. The narrator’s interiority and need for solitude are frequently touched upon in the novel. When her mother’s fatigue and the chilly, wet weather make it uncomfortable for the older woman to accompany the younger on a planned hours-long walk along a nature trail, the latter feels relief: “I wanted to walk in the woods and among the trees. I wanted not to speak to anyone, only to see and hear, to feel lonely.”

In many ways, Au’s protagonist reminded me of those in Canadian novelist Sheila Heti’s two most recent works: a person for whom art, abstraction, analysis, and time alone are of paramount importance. Au’s narrator, like Heti’s, is the child of immigrants. The web of family connection so treasured by the parents in both Au’s and Heti’s novels is contrasted with the value the daughters place on creativity, art, and solitude.

In spite of its brevity, Au’s is a remarkably rich and resonant novel. The prose is controlled, assured, and often beautiful. The emotional restraint of the novel only makes its conclusion more moving. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Apr 5, 2022 |
'As we walked, I explained to my mother a little of what to expect, being careful not to give away too much detail, to leave things to be discovered.'

A mother and daughter meet up to spend time together in Tokyo, walking the streets, sitting in cafes, visiting galleries. What at first seems a simple tale develops into an enigmatic and melancholic piece, where as a reader you suspect that much more is happening behind the words. With meditations on art, motherhood and memories, this is a truly beautifully crafted short novel by a clearly talented writer.

The kind of book that will linger with you long after you have finished, a very strong 4.5 stars. ( )
1 vote Alan.M | Mar 28, 2022 |
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A mother and daughter travel from abroad to meet in Tokyo: they walk along the canals through the autumn evenings, escape the typhoon rains, share meals in small cafes and restaurants, and visit galleries to see some of the city's most radical modern art. All the while, they talk: about the weather, horoscopes, clothes, and objects, about family, distance, and memory. But uncertainties abound. Who is really speaking here--is it only the daughter? And what is the real reason behind this elliptical, perhaps even spectral journey? At once a careful reckoning and an elegy, Cold Enough for Snow questions whether any of us speak a common language, which dimensions can contain love, and what claim we have to truly know another's inner world. Selected from more than 1,500 entries, Cold Enough for Snow won the Novel Prize, a new, biennial award offered by New Directions, Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK), and Giramondo (Australia), for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form.

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