BOOK CLUB: Ice by Anna Kavan

Ice is the perfect winter read: it’s in the title. Anna Kavan’s 1967 chilling novel is an ideal book to read by the fireside for that cosy sensation you get when listening to rain whilst tucked up in bed. The narrative follows the counterintuitive perspective of the abusive unnamed narrator in a vicious battle for a girl – “the girl” as pale as the ice itself – against another man as sadistic as himself. Suffering from trauma, the narrator slips into episodes of hallucinations that dislocate any sense of reality in the novel. Each of the narrator’s hallucinations feature visions, or perhaps fantasies, of the girl in different fragile positions having been murdered, and each time the narrator feels more pressured to find her before the warden does. It is a race against time. The narrator must find the girl before an ice shelf, caused by a nuclear war, engulfs the entirety of mankind.

Kavan’s novel certainly has not achieved the amount of attention it deserves. One version of Ice sits alone on a shelf in Queen Mary’s library with no other Kavan novels beside it. It won the best science fiction book of the year, although it doesn’t quite fit the Sci-Fi genre. Brian Aldiss has since admitted this, despite having nominated the book himself. He wanted Kavan’s work to be more widely read. A book like no other, Ice is difficult to categorize into any genre. Its dystopian theme plays with dream and reality, the narrator bends the most basic rules of narration and the storyline is so open to interpretation and laden with possibilities that numerous readings can be found between the lines.

Some believe the end-of-the-world setting, where all that is left is ice, is a pun on the cold war. Others believe the ice is a direct reference to the white powdered substance that Kavan was addicted to and finally died of in 1968. (Her death was an end to many years of depression and mental illness. Enough heroin to kill the entire street was uncovered in the flat in which she was found dead. Kavan’s victimisation by the drug was begun when she was prescribed it for a knee injury before its addictive, destructive side effects were discovered.) The story’s blur of dream and reality perhaps mirrors the writer’s struggle for clarity where dreams are as tangible as reality. Some perceive the albino temptress with silver hair as the drug; as ill and addictive as Kavan’s affliction. Doris Lessing, quite alternatively, suggests that the girl is the young Kavan herself. The reader follows the narrative of the sadistic, obsessive lover who feels entitled to punish and abuse the girl, is beguiled by her fragility and completely confused by what she wants, how to help her and how to love her. Lessing’s theory is compelling as it poses the narrator as the father of the girl, suggesting that the abuse of the girl is Kavan punishing her younger self.

Ice’s sharp and gripping depiction of a frosty, destructive love affair in the middle of a dystopian nowhere scores highly as a favourite of mine. I find myself in a love-hate relationship with the narrator and his push-and-pull affair with the girl, but the tension that so desperately questions what matters to us in the end makes the book impossible to put down.

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