I found the lovely little hardback edition of Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow whilst browsing in the library, and added it to the already large pile weighing down my arms. I have read a few of Sedgwick’s novels to date, but had never encountered his non-fiction work, and was suitably intrigued to start reading it as soon as I returned home. It was the perfect addition to my seasonal reading pile, which I like to collate as soon as every season begins to shift into the next.
Sedgwick has always been fascinated by snow, and has travelled to many cold parts of the world in order to get closer to it. After moving from Kent to a mountain chalet in France’s Haute-Savoie region, which borders Italy and Switzerland, ‘for the first time, he truly understood what it meant to live in a place where snowfall shaped the rhythms and boundaries of life.’
Snow is split into six sections, a number which has been selected to represent the six sides of a snowflake; a nice touch, I feel, and it is certainly an approach which works well. In each of these chapters, Sedgwick explores ‘the art, literature and science of snow’, and places these alongside his own experiences. Alongside this, he explores the wider implications of snowfall. The blurb comments that Sedgwick also looks into ‘climate change for himself, asking if snow could become a thing of the past’ – rather a scary thought.
From the outset, Sedgwick’s descriptive writing really helps to set the scene. He writes from his new home in France, commenting: ‘Looking down the valley now, between the humps of the nearby hills that lie like a line of vast migrating mammoths, the tip of the summit of Mont Blanc is making one of its rare appearances sans chapeau – without a hat – above the cloud that almost perpetually envelops the peak. But yesterday the snow laid down its marker for the season, made its opening move, letting us know it’s on its way in earnest. It is October 16.’
He opens with a fascinating section on the origins of different words for snow and their usage, before moving on to explore the scientific elements which will determine which kinds of snow will fall. I admit that the science geek within me loved revisiting facts such as the following: ‘… the six-armed star shapes, known as dendrites, are not the only kind possible. It’s also possible for snow to fall as needles, columns, hollow columns, six-sided prisms and plates.’ Sedgwick goes on to write: ‘Once snow lands, drifts, accumulates, thaws, refreezes, slides and so on, it develops even more intricacy, even greater wildness, but that’s another matter again.’
Sedgwick reminisces throughout the book about the winters of his childhood, and how they awakened his great love of snow; of ‘snowmen, snowball fights, icicles as dashers or as ice-dragon teeth, the snow seems to me now to have been a (literally) brilliant canvas for the imagination.’ His vision of the future is nowhere near as rosy as his reminiscences for years gone by, but his stark comments sadly feel realistic. He comments: ‘At some point in our future then, there will be no more snow, no more ice… Real snow – fresh, natural, ephemeral and almost supernatural – that will be gone. Icicles like dragons’ teeth, lakes to skate on: these will be gone too. The temperature of the world will have risen to the point where such things will live only in the memory of those old enough to remember, and then snow will take on itself an even deeper symbolism; it will become even more magical, mystical. It will stand then for what we have lost.’
First published in 2016, and coming in at just over 100 pages, Snow would make a wonderful gift, or serve as a lovely choice for something a little different to read during the winter months. It is a tome by a prolific but quite underrated author, and feels quite different from his other work which I have read to date. One can see, however, in novels like My Swordhand is Swinging and Blood Red, Snow White, the influence of the winter.
Snow is absorbing, and the scope which Sedgwick has achieved within such a short book is admirable. He continually notes how the weather is in the Haute-Savoie, and also beautifully captures how whole communities have come to live within, and rely upon, the snow. He explores the myths and legends based around the snow – surprisingly few of them exist – and reinforces the power and reach of the snow as a weather phenomenon. For a slim book, there is certainly a lot packed in, and much to consider.