Click here to read reviewer Amanda Cuda's take on Snow Island.
Snow Island makes you feel cold, even though most of the narrative takes place in summer’s heat. Reading it, I kept reaching for a sweater. Not to say the prose was frigid, or detached, or too insulated - no, Katherine Towler’s writing is inviting. She coaxed me to stay awake past my bedtime, no easy task. But her characters all hold one another at several removes; they keep themselves frozen apart, damaged as they are with broken hearts and minds. They live on an island – they are each an island.
The story is of two wars and their reach far past the battlefields into the lives of certain islanders. We meet Alice when she is sixteen, two years before World War II begins, living on Snow Island somewhere off the New England Coast. Since her father’s accidental death several years ago, Alice has managed the family’s general store, the only store on the island to keep quahoggers and their families sustained through long winters. Population is sparse, business is erratic.
Besides the yearly Fourth of July parade, the other occasion that reminds locals of the outside world is the spring arrival of George Tibbits. George returns for one night each year to pay respects to his aunts who died within days of each other after receiving false word of George’s own death during the First World War. The summer Alice is sixteen, he stays for a couple of months, and again the summer after that. His boating accident serves as catalyst for a covert relationship between Alice and the lighthouse keeper, an artist ten years her senior.
With the advent of World War II, every life changes, subtly or with grand flair - even the lives of those left behind, those who would seem to have nothing more to lose. Towler’s skill lies in portraying the problems of her isolated islanders in a way that reflects the issues that face us today – different war, different weapons, same sense of threat, same flux in daily situation, however slight the tide.
While Towler shows the familiar slight wobble of a first-time novelist in her occasional vague lack of temporal clarity, this does not detract from the ultimate power of the book. I wasn’t especially concerned when I had to wait to learn the year Alice’s father had died and even her age at the start of the narrative; Towler extracted trust from me, trust that the story she had to tell was worth listening to. The books itself is dependable while the characters do not trust each other nor themselves.
Even during expressions of love, even during the sex, a chill seeps through. This crucial element comes partly from the contrast of what the characters are really feeling when they are supposed to be feeling safe, loved, warm. The war, both wars, are a constant whisper under the roar of daily routine, the same low tone we hear now. Be wary, we hear, they hear. People can die suddenly, leaving expectations unfulfilled. A promise made with heartfelt intentions may not be delivered upon. Towler’s first novel is a promise I hope to see culminated with many more books.