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The Snow Queen review – Michael Cunningham's poetic meditation on life and death

The Snow Queen is one of the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen 's fairytales. It unfolds in a dream-like sequence of scenes; its themes are innocence and experience, mortality, love and the quest for understanding. The figure of the Snow Queen has inspired various imitations, from CS Lewis's White Witch to Disney's Frozen , and now Pulitzer-winner Michael Cunningham 's sixth novel, which makes the homage explicit in its title and epigraph.

But Cunningham's novel is nothing so obvious as a modern-day retelling. Instead, he recreates the original's episodic nature, full of echoes and allusions, on his own familiar ground: a group of cultured, middle-aged New Yorkers trying to make sense of their lives in the face of an overwhelmingly pessimistic prognosis, on both the personal and political scale. The novel begins in 2004, as the US teeters on the brink of a second Bush term. For Cunningham's characters – gay, bohemian, liberal – this would be devastating, were they not already facing the more immediate tragedy of terminal cancer.

Barrett Meeks has been to Yale, but never made good on his early promise; now, in his late 30s, he works in a friend's shop and lives with his older brother, Tyler, an unsuccessful musician who tends bar between caring for his dying girlfriend, Beth. This domestic arrangement – two siblings "sharing" a spouse – clearly interests Cunningham, with its potential for divided loyalties and shifting alliances; it appeared in his last novel, By Nightfall , with which this new book shares many preoccupations. As Beth's illness neither improves nor progresses, all three find their lives marooned in a morbid stasis. Until one night, Barrett has a vision.

He's just been dumped by his younger boyfriend; walking through Central Park, he glances up and sees an unusual light in the night sky. "He felt the light's attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he'd been, just a shade or two…"

Is it a sign from above? Barrett doesn't immediately tell anyone, but he does start going to church. Meanwhile Tyler continues his own quest for transcendence through the song he intends to compose for Beth – the definitive love song, to sing at their wedding: "It has to be a song in which a husband and singer declares himself to be not only a woman's life-mate, but her death-mate as well, although he, helpless, unconsulted, will keep on living. Good luck with that one." Small wonder that, faced with the impossibility of creating a work that can ever truly express the artist's intentions, Tyler seeks an easier epiphany in his secret drug habit. Shortly after Barrett sees the light, Beth's cancer disappears.

Like Virginia Woolf, who appeared in The Hours and whose work remains a clear influence on his writing, Cunningham's novels are often slight in terms of action; what gives The Snow Queen heft and substance is his gift for language, and the precision with which he anatomises his characters' most secret thoughts. He writes beautifully about their responses to death, and the guilt that almost always attaches to those feelings – even for Beth, for whom recovery is not without ambivalence: "There's the burden of gratitude. She hadn't expected that."

Tyler confesses his own shameful feelings towards Beth to Liz, the only friend he knows will not judge him, "because she knows the story of human desire, in all its squeamish particulars". This could be a succinct description of the author himself; he never averts his gaze from the most uncomfortable and painful complexities of feeling. But the book is also shot through with a dark humour that recognises the bathos in his characters' tragedies: "They're the subjects of a god who seems to prefer jokes to the cleansing shock of wrath."

Magic, wonder, transcendence – those chimeras we seek in drugs, art, religion, sex – are possible, the novel concludes, but not where we expect to find them. "It's hardly ever the destination we've been anticipating, is it?" The two children in Andersen's tale arrive home at the end of their adventures to discover that, to their surprise and without noticing, they have grown up. Barrett, too, manages to liberate himself from the baggage of his youth and arrive at a new, more mature self-knowledge. Tyler's fate is more ambiguous. It is he, after all, who gets the splinter of ice in his eye, like the boy in the fairytale. Perhaps this distorted vision is essential to the artist; it will be his salvation or his destruction, but Cunningham leaves us to wonder which.

The Snow Queen is more pared-down than its predecessor, clean and sharp as an ice crystal; a brief but profound and poetic meditation on love, death and compassion from a master craftsman of language.

  • Michael Cunningham
  • The Observer
  • Hans Christian Andersen

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  1. The Snow Queen review

    The Snow Queen is more pared-down than its predecessor, clean and sharp as an ice crystal; a brief but profound and poetic meditation on love, death and compassion from a master craftsman of language.