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Books

Book review

‘The Snow Queen’ by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham lifts the everyday into something miraculous so often he is more poet than novelist.

A woman buys flowers in “The Hours” and enters a garden of sensation. In “Specimen Days,” Whitman’s genius arises from the clanging streets of Brooklyn.

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In his new novel, “The Snow Queen,” Cunningham reverses direction of this aesthetic aviation. Here the miraculous returns to earth in sentences so gorgeous that we can barely feel the wheels touch down.

“The Snow Queen” begins with the most dramatic of all such landings. Walking home from the dentist, tooth-sick and love-lorn, Barrett Meeks spots an aqua-blue smear across the night sky.

At first, he thinks it may just be an unusually southern display of the Northern lights. But then he feels the sky looking at him.

“No. Not looking,” Cunningham writes. “Apprehending. As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.”

This spiritual revelation arrives in the nick of time for Barrett. Once a boy genius and wandering Yale graduate, he’s eddied into a life of reduced expectations.

As the book opens, Barrett works in retail and lives with his brother, Tyler, a struggling coke-addicted musician who is trying to compose a wedding song for his dying love, Beth.

Cunningham has worked well with trios in previous novels, and he makes the most of this set up here. “The Snow Queen” moves in propulsive bursts, shifting from Barrett’s to Tyler’s to, briefly, Beth’s point of view, showing how secrets, by their nature, metastasize and create alternate realities.

Barrett doesn’t tell his brother about his celestial revelation; Tyler is hiding his cocaine use from both Beth and Barrett; and Beth, so ill and frail, remains a mystery to everyone. Her entire inner life is a secret.

Cunningham’s opening set piece unfolds at night, snow tumbling through an open window in the apartment Barrett and Tyler and Beth share in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The book moves in this mode throughout as it skips across a decade, the atmosphere magical, but gritty, like a modern-day fairy tale.

The book, in fact, takes its title from a Hans Christian Andersen story in which a troll creates a mirror that magnifies the ugly qualities of whoever stands before it. The devil takes the mirror to heaven, but it falls, scattering splinters into people’s hearts and eyes.

In Andersen’s story, these splinters drive a little boy and girl, Kai and Gerda, apart. A Snow Queen seduces Kai and gives him the power to forget Gerda. The only way Gerda can earn his love back is to remove the splinter from his heart.

As Cunningham has done in “The Hours” and “Specimen Days” with the work of Virignia Woolf and Walt Whitman, respectively, “The Snow Queen” uses its primary text less as a map than as an optic for modern concerns.

Everyone in “The Snow Queen” has a splinter they need removed, but most don’t realize the wound has been self-inflicted.

Both Tyler and Barrett, for instance, are desperate for a snow queen they can serve and worship. Barrett falls in love quickly and turns his lovers into idols.

Meanwhile, Tyler seems to have found his mythical transformative figure in Beth. Caring for her has made him a better person. But he is really in the thrall of cocaine.

Andersen, like many writers of his time, was a believer, and the original “Snow Queen” pivots with extraordinary poise upon notions of good and evil and the danger of worshipping false gods.

In Cunningham’s world, however, these dichotomies have lost their currency. His characters stand starkly alone in their choices thanks to the secrets they decide to keep.

Across the novel the Iraq War rages in the background, in news reports, and flippant conversation, but the narrative focus remains on romantic and filial relationships that are tested by illness and self-abuse.

Not since William S. Burroughs’s “Junky” has a novel portrayed the pleasures and costs of mid-life drug abuse so clearly. Tyler loves Beth, but he won’t quit, and the sicker she gets, the more he uses. Caretakers, Cunningham potently reminds, often make allowances for themselves based on the suffering they are made to witness.

“The Snow Queen” never judges its characters’ excesses, their lies. It merely creates drama from them and suspense. One turns the pages wondering whether Barrett will pursue his awakening, whether Tyler will overdose, whether Beth will survive.

For everyone in “The Snow Queen,” time is running out, especially Beth. She is the only main character whose point of view Cunningham keeps at a remove. We spy it briefly, as she takes a walk on a New Year’s Eve, but mostly she remains off stage.

This is a masterful performance. At a glance, “The Snow Queen” revolves around so little. A man struggles to love, another to lose, and a woman tries not to give up. It is a drama that is unfolding somewhere in Brooklyn right now. To be inside this book is to stand beneath a sun shower. It dares you not to look up.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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