Books - Fiction: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham's slipstream prose can both delight and frustrate. At his most accomplished, such as in the bestselling The Hours, his lush style weaves a magical spell, words dancing and dazzling on the page. At other times, his constant reluctance to cleave from traditional narration and characterisation can make it feel as if he is waxing obtuse for the sake of it.
As the title hints, The Snow Queen is inspired by classic fairytales, though Cunningham's sensibilities skew in a thoroughly modern (even post-modern) direction, resulting in a very beautiful hodgepodge. Barrett Meeks is a gay New Yorker with a patchy love life, his brother Tyler a musician who thinks that, if he can just write the perfect song, he may be able to save the life of his terminally ill girlfriend. The wistful premise – two siblings struggling with different forms of heartache – is a springboard for a rumination on the possibility of magic and divine grace in everyday life, one which finds Cunningham drawing deeply on his love, in particular, of Hans Christian Andersen.
This makes for a sometimes unconvincing literary bone-graft. The lush writing is gorgeous throughout and yet his stylistic curlicues seem perhaps a tad too poised as the author delves into the bewildering complexities of modern life. Sometimes, indeed, it feels as if he's simply showing off – at one point he proclaims of his characters: "They're the subjects of a god who seems to prefer jokes to the cleansing shock of wrath."
It's a lovely line and yet the payoff is banal. At a technical level The Snow Queen is extraordinary – nevertheless its observations on the human condition often boil down to a glorified excursion into stating the obvious. It is exceedingly pretty but where's the personality? A disappointment.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent