ambitious | genteel | thought-provoking
what it says on the cover …
1914: Young Anton Heideck has arrived in Vienna, eager to make his name as a journalist. While working part-time as a private tutor, he encounters Delphine, a woman who mixes startling candour with deep reserve. Entranced by the light of first love, Anton feels himself blessed. Until his country declares war on hers.
1927: For Lena, life with a drunken mother in a small town has been impoverished and cold. She is convinced she can amount to nothing until a young lawyer, Rudolf Plischke, spirits her away to Vienna. But the capital proves unforgiving. Lena leaves her metropolitan dream behind to take a menial job at the snow-bound sanatorium, the Schloss Seeblick
1933: Still struggling to come terms with the loss of so many friends on the Eastern Front, Anton, now an established writer, is commissioned by a magazine to visit the mysterious Schloss Seeblick. In this place of healing, on the banks of a silvery lake, where the depths of human suffering and the chances of redemption are explored, two people will see each other as if for the first time.
Sweeping across Europe as it recovers from one war and hides its face from 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 a work of timeless resonance.
PUBLISHED: 2nd September 2021
SHELF: Historical Fiction
AUTHOR: Sebastian Faulks
PUBLISHER: Hutchinson (Penguin Random House)
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook
Thank you to Najma Finlay at @HutchinsonBooks for this advance-proof copy of #SnowCountry by @SebastianFaulks
my review …
I ought to start my review by saying that Snow Country is a lofty and ambitious novel that’s been written for cleverer minds than mine. For that reason, I don’t think my review will do justice to it. It is also the second instalment in planned trilogy, which I hadn’t realised until after I’d finished reading this book. Many reviewers have said Snow Country works well as a standalone, but I do wonder if I’d read Human Traces first, I might have engaged more deeply with this particular story.
First things first – is it just me, or do the book’s title and cover design summon up the same impressions to you as they do to me? There’s something about them that remind me of the final dramatic scenes of The Sound of Music when the family escape the Nazis across the Alps following a nerve-wracking car chase. Well, the era certainly tallies up with the latter chapters of Snow Country, as does the predominantly Viennese setting, but that’s where the similarities end. So, having formed that incorrect supposition in my own head, it’s fair to say I went into the book with mismatched expectations.
In keeping with its generational context, Snow Country is a quiet, well articulated story, unembellished and unadorned. There’s a gravitas in this simplicity, and the detached narrative begs the readers to try and get closer to its characters. Its tone and prose is very formal and proper, and there’s an undeniable richness to the diorama it creates, invoking the conflicting gentility and brutality of these pivotal decades.
The depth and breadth of research undertaken by the author is quite honestly breathtaking. From the immediate, shell-shocked aftermath of the Great War, and the socio-political turmoil consuming Austria in the 1920s and ‘30s, to the country’s religious upheaval, the looming threat of Nazi invasion, and the relatively embryonic practice of psychotherapy, Snow Country is a work of bold intent.
Snow Country is a character study in triplicate; its three main characters – Anton, Lena, and Martha – could not be any more different when you first encounter them, but as the story unfolds across three decades, their stories are woven together and a sense of intimacy emerges. Of the three, Lena was my favourite character with perhaps the most emotionally engaging and plot-formative story. Martha is a trained psychotherapist, who runs the Schloss Seeblick sanatorium which provides the setting for the three disparate paths to cross. But it’s Anton’s character who binds the three stories together; he carries the burden of the post-war theme, whilst also enlightening readers on the societal issues by way of his career as an investigative journalist.
As a character-centric book its stories can only really come alive through their dynamics and relationships. And this is where I struggled … ostensibly all-consuming romances came across as perfunctory and lacklustre, whilst seemingly informal conversations were stilted and felt unnatural. This was exacerbated by some very long, weighty dialogues – primarily between Martha and Anton – that were ponderous to the point of distraction. Their subject matter could have illuminated the story beautifully, but instead I found their pomposity off-putting. The compound effect was that I simply couldn’t engage with the characters as well as I’d like to have done.
Contrastingly, I found the settings and visual imagery of Snow Country wonderfully vivid: Anton’s arrival in Vienna and Lena’s account of Schloss Seeblick were remarkable in their clarity and rendering. Likewise, as Anton bares witness to some of the era’s most significant events, the character’s eye for detail colours their historical context with his own personal feelings and experiences.
If you like your historical fiction stylistically understated, with contextual veracity and uncompromising literary ‘weight’, Snow Country offers you a didactic and thought-provoking read. I can’t fault its ambition or integrity, but sadly this book just wasn’t for me … however, if you take a moment to read other reviews you’ll see I am in the minority.
Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953, and grew up in Newbury, the son of a judge and a repertory actress. He attended Wellington College and studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, although he didn’t enjoy attending either institution. Cambridge in the 70s was still quite male-dominated, and he says that you had to cycle about 5 miles to meet a girl. He was the first literary editor of “The Independent”, and then went on to become deputy editor of “The Sunday Independent”. Sebastian Faulks was awarded the CBE in 2002. He and his family live in London.