A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford
This is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is a novel about the tricky relationships between mother in laws and daughter in laws, about the problems of living in a big house, and the problem of trust. It is also a historical novel about a discovery of a very different way of life in a harsh part of the world. It is written so well that it is nearly impossible to put down, at least I could not wait to find out what happened to the main characters. It features a mysterious body found in the grounds, the search for a name and the need to identify what happened. It is skilfully constructed to make the surprises blend in and are consistent with the characters and the times. This is a well researched book but the research never dominates the narrative and feeds it brilliantly. This is a novel that will linger in the mind for its story and its well drawn characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very enjoyable novel.
The book begins with a mysterious voice, waiting for the discovery that will change things, for a long mystery to be solved. The scene changes to 1944, Northampton, and a generous young woman called Caro who not only stops to offer a serviceman a lift, but is not overly perturbed when it turns out to be a black G.I. who is used to being ignored. She is driving around giving lectures, and has already met Alasdair who she is engaged to marry. The story then moves onto 1949, when they are married and living in a cottage on the Kelly estate which belongs to Alasdair’s family. Caro is busy looking after her baby daughter Felicity, and negotiating the tricky relationship with her mother in law Martha. There are many expectations and tensions between the women, not helped by Caro’s lack of confidence in her role as full time mother. The only glimmer of light is that Martha wants Caro to do some research into the family history in order to strengthen a possible application to the National Trust to safeguard the house. A sad discovery inspires a more determined hunt, but it is in finding a diary that diverts the narrative into a journey into the Arctic, a journey that will change lives and leave an unexpected legacy in many ways.
This book combines some fascinating details of life in various periods, the setting for journeys, the characteristics of a demanding house. The characters are so well drawn that some of their trials reflect contemporary, familiar tensions within families.The clothes, the postwar austerity and the confusion of a young woman is cleverly built up. The descriptions of an extreme journey are beautifully written, with a real understanding of the time, the conditions and the challenges in such undertakings beautifully conveyed. I found Oliver’s story particularly touching and thought that there were some lovely characters. This is a truly delightful novel in its realism and plot, the motivations of the characters, and the understanding of human nature. I thoroughly recommend it as an excellent read in so many ways.