The last train was in forty minutes. I pulled the sleeves of my jacket over my hands and wrapped my arms around myself as I sat on the bench to wait. Eventually, I got up and bought a bottle of sake from one of the vending machines. It was clear and cold, tasting at first of alcohol and something vaguely sweet, before evaporating into nothing. After a while, I was no longer cold, but only very tired. I had one vague, exhausted thought that perhaps it was all right not to understand all things, but simply to see and hold them.
Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow was one of the recommendations I got on Twitter when I asked for “warm-hearted” books as an antidote to the chilly forensic exactitude of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. It was a great suggestion: I loved it. Like My Phantoms, it is about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and it has in common that things between them are a bit complicated. In Au’s slim, quiet novella, though, there is no hatred, bitterness, resentment, or resistance. There’s no friction, no hurt. There’s just the reality that even those you know best remain at some level opaque, separate, different—that you may never really know them, even if you love them. All you can know is what they do and what they say, which may leave something essential about them still out of reach.
Cold Enough to Snow follows its mother and daughter as they travel together in Japan. Travel is always a useful metaphor for other kinds of movement, and it’s clear from the beginning that where they are really going, or at least where the narrator, the daughter, wants them to go is towards greater closeness and understanding. She herself is preoccupied with trying to figure out things about herself and her own life, including whether she wants to have children, but she also seems sincerely interested in her mother, whose reserve and self-effacement (all of the gifts she buys, her daughter notices, are for other people) give her a remote, elusive quality.
The narrator plans outings and activities seeking connection, but often she looks around to find her mother is not with her but is sitting quietly on a bench, resting and waiting. When they talk, she often wants something from her mother that she isn’t quite getting, or she is disappointed in her own inability to respond to her mother the way she hopes to:
When she was growing up, she said that she had never thought of herself in isolation, but rather as inextricably linked to others. Nowadays, she said, people were hungry to know everything, thinking that they could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner. But, she said, in fact there was no control, and understanding would not lessen any pain . . . She spoke about other tents, of goodness and giving, the accumulation of kindness like a trove of wealth. She was looking at me then, and I knew that she wanted me to be with her on this, to follow her, but to my shame I found that I could not and worse, that I could not even pretend. Instead I looked at my watch and said that visiting hours were almost over, and that we should probably go.
She wrestles with her sense that something is not right, that perhaps her expectations make her mother uncomfortable. Sometimes it seems that she is projecting her own confusions or frustrations onto her mother, as when she reassures her mother that it is okay not to understand what you are looking at in galleries, not to have an opinion about it: “The main thing was to be open, to listen, to know when and when not to speak.”
This receptivity seems to be what the narrator is striving for in her relationship with her mother, and as their journey continues I thought she succeeded, particularly as she contemplates what it must have been like for her mother, who moved long ago from Hong Kong to Australia, to live a life separated from her childhood and especially from her first language:
Perhaps, over time, she had found the past harder and harder to evoke, especially with no one to remember it with. Perhaps it was easier that way, so much so that after a while this new way became her habit, another thing she grew used to, like eating cereal for breakfast, or keeping your shoes on in other people’s homes, or rarely speaking to another in your mother tongue.
It’s not a novel of epiphanies or revelations or breakthroughs; there’s no drama. The tone is quiet, and the prose is careful, evocative, minimal. Sometimes I get impatient with novels that are so spare, but in this case the small acts of tenderness the mother and daughter show to each other say enough: the moment when they meet up after a day or two apart and the mother hurries towards her daughter, holding a supermarket bag with their dinner — “When she recognized me her face broke out with warmth. Here you are, she said, as if we had merely missed each other by minutes, as if she were welcoming me into her home. Come and eat, she said” — or when the daughter, seeing her mother struggling with her shoe, kneels down to help her pull it on.