1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations. But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?
I must confess that when I started reading Seas of Snow, I was entirely unsure of what to expect, hoping that this would go far beyond a simple, linear tale of family misery. My fears were very quickly dispelled, and to be honest, this was one of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and beautifully characterised novels I have read for some time…
For the purposes of this review I will studiously avoid the words crime novel, as to my mind what Kerensa Jennings has produced with aplomb is much more akin to literary fiction, in terms of emotional depth and narrative tone. With the use of the dual narrative structure, where the past is seamlessly intertwined with the contemporary timeline, the reader finds themselves gently pivoted back and forth. To avoid any unwitting spoilers, the contemporary aspect of the book involves two characters looking back on childhood events with their knowing adult perspective, but so as not to reveal a hugely surprising twist in the tale I can say no more. Suffice to say this part of this story was incredibly moving, and sees these characters wrestling with the emotional consequences of the events so many years previously. It is emotionally uplifting yet perturbing in equal measure, as Jennings’ explores the themes of redemption and blame in relation to their actions, leading to some exceptionally moving revelations.
Instead, what I will focus on is Jennings’ absolute mastery of the language and thought of both Grace and Billy as children. I do tend to avoid reading books with a child’s narrative, as I am so often disappointed by the lack of realism, and how many authors slip into the attribution of adult reasoning that then undermines the credibility of the young narrator. Jennings’ portrayal of her child protagonists is never less than perfectly realised. Gracie’s dialogue, thoughts and child’s reasoning is absolutely authentic throughout, and as a reader, when the dark events unfold, you are genuinely terrified for her. Jennings’ depiction of the abuse that Gracie suffers is totally unflinching, so much so that at times I had to physically take a breath when reading these scenes. I admired the bravery and realism with which Jennings’ approaches this hugely emotive subject matter, be it the sheer physical fear that Gracie experiences, or in the uncompromising and brutally graphic depiction of the psyche of her abuser. Jennings’ neatly circumvents the clichéd bogeyman images of paedophilia, but instead, presents a much more frightening depiction by the way she explores so fearlessly and thoroughly the mind-set of this deeply disturbed individual who brings fear and havoc to Gracie’s childhood. It takes the reader into the darkest recesses of psychopathy, and Jennings’ intuitive exploration of the conundrum of nature vs nurture is both deeply chilling, and strangely fascinating. The writing is emotionally intense, graphic and unceasingly honest.
As much as the novel focuses on the violence of Gracie’s childhood, Jennings’ harmonises this throughout with the simple pleasures of childhood friendships, and increasing perception that both Gracie and Billy begin to experience of the world around them. There are childhood stories of make-believe, adventure, and Gracie’s flourishing interest in the world of books and poetry, that in tandem with her friendship with Billy, sustains her mental equilibrium, as the dark events of her household play out. It brings a beautifully weighted lightness, and emotional relief to the novel, that keeps the reader balanced and engaged, before the next plunge into the darker aspects of the book, and Jennings’ cleverly uses this part of Gracie’s development to change the nature of her narrative voice, and the images she ascribes to her tormentor’s presence. This is the only point where you can quite clearly hear a resonance of Jennings’ own authorial voice, as Gracie’s increasing appreciation of books and poetry, reflect what I believe is the author’s own joy and emotional succour afforded to us all by literature and verse. I found the scenes reflecting Gracie’s growing appreciation of this world of words and images strangely reminiscent of my own, and I’m sure many other readers too, and it was a delight.
This was without doubt an emotionally intense, but extremely rewarding reading experience, despite the harsh and quite often unpalatable depiction of a childhood destroyed. The language, imagery and controlled nature of Jennings’ writing was at times deeply unsettling in the portrayal of the darkness of Gracie’s experiences, and the psyche of her abuser, but then uplifting in the purity and simplicity she attributes to Gracie’s discovery of the pleasures of storytelling and poetry that becomes her coping strategy. At times, an incredibly discomforting read, with a shockingly powerful denouement, but equally a brave, truthful, and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.
(With much thanks to the author for the ARC)