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Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

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‘Sweeping across Europe as it recovers from one war and awaits the coming of another, SNOW COUNTRY is a landmark novel of exquisite yearnings, dreams of youth and the sanctity of hope. In elegant, shimmering prose, Sebastian Faulks has produced an epic love story of timeless resonance.’ – Publisher Quote

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks is published with Hutchinson Heinemann (Cornerstone/Penguin UK) and is a return to Schloss Seeblick, the setting of Sebastian Faulks’ 2011 novel, Human Traces. But ‘although we glimpse one or two characters from the past, this is a new world’ says Sebastian Faulks of Snow Country. When people ask me what my favourite book of all time is I always include Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993). The vivid descriptions of trench warfare have remained with me and it is a book that really had a huge impact. As a result I am always quite reticent when picking up another book by Sebastian Faulks.

Human Traces is ‘set during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries….brilliantly captures the drama behind the intellectual and social controversies spurred by Darwin’s theory of evolution and breakthroughs in the study of mental illness.’ Snow Country is more about the humanity of people as they struggle to survive in a world that is tumbling down around them. It is a tale of epic proportions taking the reader on a scintillating journey from the early 1900s to the immediate years prior to the Second World War.

Snow Country is set in Austria where we are introduced to Anton Heideck, a hopeful journalist turning his back on his family’s sausage business, Rudolf Plischke, an idealist (and lawyer) with quite radical views, and Lena, a young girl born on the wrong side of the tracks with ambition and survival instincts. Sebastian Faulks explores significant historical events like the building of the Panama Canal and the famous trial of Parisian socialite Henriette Caillaux, as well as the political and societal changes of the time.

Anton Heideck is frustrated with his life, very unsure of his future, until he meets with Delphine Fourmentier, a tutor who is temporarily based in Vienna. Delphine is everything and more than Anton could ever have hoped for and, over the weeks, a relationship develops, leading the pair to set up home in quite an unorthodox fashion for the time. Delphine has her secrets but Anton is blinded by passion and love never looking for any more information than she offers. While he is in Paris reporting on the Caillaux case, the declaration of war they had all feared is announced. Anton’s return to Vienna is delayed but when he finally makes it back, Delphine has disappeared. Anton gets caught up in the horrors of the war with Sebastian Faulks yet again creating dramatic and very rich descriptions of the trenches, albeit only for a section of the novel. The years of fighting and the injuries suffered left a catastrophic mark, both physically and emotionally on Anton and, with no Delphine waiting for him, he goes through a very disturbed period in his life. Following the war, he embarks on a magazine assignment that takes him to Schloss Seeblick, a sanatorium, where he hopes to write an article studying the possible decline of Austria’s world-leading expertise on matters of the mind and psychiatry. While there he crosses paths with people from many different walks of life and he discovers peace there away from the maddening crowds. Anton Heideck has obviously suffered untreated PTSD and this place becomes a temporary refuge for him.

“He fears being just a consciousness, a whirlpool of impersonal energy. A toy of history with no will of his own” – Martha Midwinter, Schloss Seeblick, conversing with her sister, Charlotte, about Anton Heideck

Rudolf Plischke is a young man with radical beliefs and strong views. Caught up in a spiralling political situation, Rudolf hopes for a better future for Austria. He crosses paths with Lena, a young girl struggling to survive. Lena is the daughter of Carina, an alcoholic and a prostitute who has given birth to numerous children. She handed all her babies over to institutional care except for Lena. For whatever her reasons, she decided to be a more proactive mother and Lena was given a chance at an education. But Lena was not interested in mathematics or reading. She dreamed of a different life and hoped to someday be with her father, a sailor from Trieste who she has a very brief encounter with. Lena is taken under Rudolf’s wing in Vienna but over time the Viennese life does not suit Lena and she takes the opportunity to work at Schloss Seeblick. Rudolf dips in and out of her life over the following years, leaving her confused and often angered.

Snow Country captures the very essence of Anton, Rudolf and Lena as their lives become intertwined over the years. Sebastian Faulks writes with an extremely perceptive hand bringing his cast of characters very much to life for the reader. The novel does contain an element of psychoanalysis/psychotherapy running through its core but it’s not over-bearing, rather enough to be insightful and quite fascinating. There were occasional sections of dialogue throughout the novel that I did find a little jarring, as they lacked a certain flow and didn’t sit with me too well but, in the overall reading experience, I was able to overlook them.

With a heart-breaking and compelling storyline Snow Country encapsulates a period of history that saw forceful changes in history. Everyone at the time suffered in some manner either through war or illness, with the Spanish Flu adding to the death toll. The spirituality and minds of many were tested to the extreme and not everyone could cope, escaping into their heads looking for a better alternative reality.

“Why should my life be different or special? None of us is spared by history. That’s what history is. A leveller. A universal joke whose shape is visible only in retrospect. God laughs when he hears our plans, but history laughs louder”

Snow Country is a haunting novel, a very authentic and profound tale. It is a history lesson, a love story, a very affecting reading experience. A richly visual and perceptive story.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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