Review by Philipa Coughlan
Publisher: Hutchinson September 2021
ISBN: 978-1786330185 HB
“….my awe of human insignificance,” says Anton, one of the main three characters that personifies the plot of this wonderful novel.
We are in safe literary hands with Sebastian Faulks especially with this, the second in what will become a trilogy. It began with his incredible (and my favourite of his past output) ‘Human Traces’ published back in 2005. In that, Faulks set to question human existence: ‘What are we?’ It also explored early psychiatry, the influence of Freud and how deep within our emotions and minds must we delve to make sense of the world around us. It was a brilliant book. ‘Snow Country’ takes up the mantle again.
In his latest Faulks revisits the sanatorium set high in snow capped mountains that the two original psychiatrists Thomas and Jacques set up in their days of hope. Do not worry if you have not read ‘Human Traces,’ but realistically you will gain more insight by beginning with the parents and family of Martha who is now ‘running’ the establishment.
It is now 1914 and young Anton Heideck has arrived in Vienna, eager to make his name as a journalist. While working part-time as a private tutor he meets Delphine, a French woman who mixes startling candour with deep reserve. Anton is entranced by her and falls passionately in love. Until work separates them, and his country declares war on hers. The world is at war but in its consequent economic trials we also meet Lena whose life in 1927 with a drunken mother leaves them impoverished and cold. Then Lena meets young lawyer, the idealist political lawyer Rudolf Plischke and he spirits her away to happiness and a future in Vienna. But that future crumbles and Lena must leave the dream to take a menial job at the snow-bound sanatorium, the Schloss Seeblick, under the wing of Martha.
By 1933, with the chimes of war beginning to once again ring across Europe Anton, still struggling with the loss of friends and perhaps his own mind at the Eastern Front in WW1 is commissioned by a magazine to visit the mysterious sanatorium.
This is a place of healing, but also an uncovering of deep human suffering and sexual longing. Anton, Rudolf and Lena will find their lives colliding. It is a novel of crossroads in life, love, loss and so much fate. Faulks is a skilled plotter but writes with an ease into which the reader slides, like the skaters on the icy lake in front of the sanatorium. There is always the possibility of a fall but often you will glide eventually to a restoration of happiness and a better future.
“How strange it was …..that you noticed how tightly you had been tethered only when you started to be free.” There is a subtle chain that will bind you to this story but it grows with the fantastic telling of human endurance and yes, the art of therapy. Not just of padded rooms, drugs, talking therapies-but of opening your eyes, beauty of the moment and grains of hope where often humans feel there is only hatred and fear.
As a personal read a 5* masterpiece that I devoured in a day. I am interested in Faulk’s telling of the world of the mind, and he does it in a beautiful literary style that engages from the first page. Wonderful characters and European history told between the wars that shows how as individuals we may be against the world (as we might feel currently) but that a slight turn of happiness or hope will make life better. Fans of Faulks and many book groups will enjoy it greatly. I cannot wait for the next instalment!