Anna Kavan, Ice

A confession: I’ve been collecting the gold-spined Peter Owen editions of Kavan’s books because they look so lovely on my shelf. This is the only one that is *not* gold-spined (why, Peter Owen?) and it looks distinctly out of place next to the others. Naturally, therefore, it’s the first one I read. It turns out that Kavan is unnerving and powerful and I’ve utterly failed to do her justice here. I feel rather guilty for having collected her books for so shallow a reason.

From last weekend’s column:


It’s hard to explain what happens in Anna Kavan’s Ice, since the novel doesn’t really have anything resembling a conventional plot. Ice is a series of encounters between a nameless narrator and two other, equally nameless, characters; a woman (a “girl”, according to the narrator) whose beautiful fragility is fetishised by the narrator, and her partner, a brutal, controlling man. The narrative is fractured; and moves between dream and reality so often that it’s impossible to distinguish ‘real’ events from those originating in the narrator’s own imagination. At one moment at the beginning of the novel the narrator is lost on his way to the woman’s house; in the next, he is seeing her slowly surrounded by a wall of ice. Later, he is attempting to get her away from her sinister partner, when all of a sudden she is the victim of a mob that wishes to sacrifice her to appease a dragon. This is dream logic – it all almost makes sense, until you examine the details.

And then there’s the ice that gives the novel its name. We’re not told exactly what events led to the massive climate change that Kavan’s world appears to be experiencing, but nuclear holocaust is hinted at more than once. What we do know is that the world is getting colder and colder; and that people are fleeing the country for other parts of the world. The narrator himself seems to be investigating the climate change in some official capacity; he certainly seems to have powerful government connections. At other times, however, he seems more interested in a study of a species of singing lemurs that fascinate him disproportionately.

In most other novels, this sort of apocalyptic climate change would be enough to make the work unambiguously science fictional, and Ice was certainly awarded the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction book of the year in 1967 when it was published. Yet I’m hesitant to make that claim for the book. The science of this apocalypse isn’t the point of Ice. Novels often use science fiction to explore an issue. It’s possible to read this as aspect of the book as a reference to the Cold War – the logical connection between “cold” and “ice”, the timing of the book and the suggestion that nuclear holocaust had something to do with it all make this a tempting reading. But it won’t do. Whatever the events that have led to this moment may be, they aren’t the focus of the novel. What they do, however, is to contribute to a building sense of fear – everything is collapsing around this narrator. Ice is less about exterior events than interior ones. We know that the narrator has trouble with insomnia and a history of mental illness, that he takes drugs that have strange hallucinatory side effects. My edition of the book contains an introduction by Christopher Priest, who suggests that the “ice” could also be heroin.  Kavan herself was addicted to the substance. It’s possible that there are elements of her addiction in the novel, with the narrator’s obsessive hunt for the girl and the constant focus on abusive relationships. There’s a sort of doubling (or tripling) that goes on throughout; the narrator may see himself as the girl’s saviour, but he often identifies with her abusive partner and imagines what it would feel like to inflict pain upon her, but then at points it almost seems the girl is an aspect of him as well.

So is this a study of abusive gender relationships, a cold war cautionary tale, a formal experiment with an unreliable narrator, a semi-autobiographical history of Kavan’s own histories of mental illness and addiction (she would die the year after the book was published)? None of these are entirely satisfactory, and it would be a lesser book if one could map any one meaning neatly atop it. Ice is something alien and unsettling and raw.


3 Responses to “Anna Kavan, Ice

  1. I’m ashamed to say that I only heard about Anna Kavan very recently. And so I’m excited that you’ve written about her so Ice goes on the wishlist, along with Asylum Piece. (Anyway, this is a pretty good essay on Kavan, and how I first heard of her.)


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