Jessica Au’s novella Cold Enough For Snow won the inaugural “Novel Prize” in 2020 while still in manuscript; it’s easy to understand what the judges saw in it. Compact and terse yet flowing, both concrete and ambiguous, intimate but distant, modest yet knowing, the book manages to find universality in the careful observation of detail.
A young woman takes her Hong Kong-born mother on holiday in Japan in an effort to reconnect. They now live apart in an unnamed, evidently Western, country (which one suspects could be the author’s native Australia). The brief trip ends up as much an exercise in the narrator reconnecting with herself as bridging the generational divide with her mother.
The holiday itself is somewhat uneventful—museums, train trips, some restaurants—but engenders flashbacks about Catholic school, University, her sister, a trip to Hong Kong as a child, her mother’s elder brother who had a predilection for birds of the sort people keep at home in cages, Laurie—less than a spouse, but more than a boyfriend. Everything in Japan, no matter how minor, relates backwards and then forward again.
Many of the houses were built right up to the road, but people had placed small planters in what little space there was, with peonies or bonsais. We too had had a bonsai when I was growing up, in a white square pot with tiny feet… For some reason, I remembered disliking it as a child. Perhaps because I thought it looked unnatural, or lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest.
Certain observations recur like leitmotifs. One is “care”, as in the description of the mother’s arrival at the airport.
Up close, I noticed that she continued to dress with care: a brown shirt with pearl buttons, tailored pants and small items of jade. It had always been that way. Her clothes were not expensive, but were chosen with attention to the cut and fit, the subtle combination of textures. She looked like a well-dressed woman in a movie from maybe twenty or thirty years ago, both dated and elegant.
Meals are ordered carefully, aisles in shops are browsed carefully, dishes and glasses are washed carefully, instructions are followed carefully.
Another, again linked with “care”, are references to movies. The narrator’s uncle, she recalls,
was quiet and slim, with the bookish air of the university student he had never been. Like my mother, he took care with his clothes and appearance, always wearing a white pressed shirt and black shoes, combing his hair with a slight wave and to the side, in the manner of Chinese film stars of the thirties and forties.
Films and paintings permeate the book, with the effect of life imitating art more than once; in another flashback, the narrator recalls “my boyfriend’s profile as he glanced at the wine list was like an ad for an expensive watch.”
Au’s writing benefits from a deep verisimilitude. Readers familiar with Hong Kong and Hong Kong people who have picked up to live somewhere else will find that Au has nailed both. The mother and her brother, the way they dress and hold themselves, their interactions, the family gatherings, are immediately recognizable, as is the narrator’s cultural and linguistic dislocation, how “my mother’s first language was Cantonese, and how mine was English, and how we only ever spoke together in one, and not the other,” and how she compensates by wanting to learn Japanese.
But one doesn’t need to have interacted with this world to appreciate the delicacy and nuance with which Au has brought it to life.