Book review: A Snow Garden

WHEN Rachel Joyce writes a novel or a radio play, she often cuts out minor characters, or minimises their role.

These characters, she writes, in the Foreword of A Snow Garden, hang around her office, distracting her and making a racket. In order to clean them out, she decided to write a short story collection, giving each one a story of their own.

Maureen, the shy teenager who attends her first dance in ‘The Boxing Day Ball’, appeared briefly, in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Binny, the hopeless mother of the first story, who shuts down her life rather than give in to grief, was cut from Joyce’s second novel, Perfect.

These characters, and the others, while enjoying their starring role, have walk-on parts in other stories, providing a clever link.

Every story makes mention of an advertisement, a snow scene fronted by a girl in a red coat, who is surrounded by woodland animals.

Many of the links between stories are somewhat tenuous, yet they add interest and coherence.

Alice gets a mention in the first story, as a friend Binny has lost touch with. A card from her appears in Alice’s story, and later still, we read, in a third one, that their friendship has been rekindled.

Too often, story collections bearing a Christmas theme can be trite, over-sentimental and predictable. Not so these. The sense of magic and promise of redemption is cleverly conveyed.

Each of these ultimately comforting stories took me by surprise.

The collection makes for wonderful winter reading. I devoured it on a wet Sunday, curled up by the fire; pausing between each story, relishing each one.

The characters of every story are stuck in their lives. Henry and Alice in ‘The Marriage Manual’ live in denial. Showing a smug, happily married picture to the world, they remember their special stories, forgetting the stresses and difficulties experienced in reality.

However, when a crack appears in the living room, words fly and the resulting devastation threatens to engulf them, yet we’re left with a sense of hope, and a new beginning.

The most zany story, and the one I liked the least, ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’, morphs into a modern nativity. The title story is presented as a miracle, or, possibly, the result of a depressed man’s hallucination, and though ‘The Snow Garden’ turns out to be manmade, it works its magic in other ways.

I love the way the author dovetails her collection; starting with Binny’s tale, as the heartbroken woman learns to mourn the past and accept the present, and ends with her erstwhile partner, the feckless Oliver’s story, ‘Trees’.

Reuniting with his father, Oliver regrets the way his life has panned out in the months since that first story ended. It is a fitting conclusion, and makes sense of all the stories that have gone before.

If I have a quibble, it’s a dislike of the author’s peeks into the future. Does the reader need to know that the promising beginning of romance for Maureen in ‘The Boxing Day Ball’ will eventually end in disappointment?

Fans of Joyce’s quirky tales — and there are many — as she is as skilled with language as she is with plot and characterisation — will be delighted with this story collection.

But the author has one more problem to solve.

What will she do with the curates whom she cut out of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, when she adapted it for the BBC?

Because they haunt her office still.

A Snow Garden

Rachel Joyce

Doubleday, €12.99;

Kindle, €5.82


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