Jessica Au’s cold enough for snow

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (Giramondo 2022)

Cold Enough for Snow won the inaugural Novel Prize in 2020. It’s very short, hardly more than a novella. In it, the narrator, a young woman I guess to be in her late 20s, takes her mother on a holiday to Japan. The two women have lived in different cities for some time and this is a kind of reunion. The recount of their holiday is interspersed with the young woman’s memories of family stories, her transformative university experience, an episode from her sister’s life, and a little about a former boyfriend and her husband. No big stormy scenes, no tears or even really any laughter. The biggest drama of the holiday occurs when the mother believes she has lost her passport then finds it in a zipped compartment of her bag.

Yet it’s hard to put the book down.

What is not said looms large. The narrator tells us early in the book that she invited her mother to come on the trip ‘for reasons [she] could not yet name’. She never does name them, but the question has been raised for the reader.

For most of the book the narrator is insufferably patronising to her mother, making all the decisions, telling her what to do, giving her brief lectures about the art they see, generally explaining the world to her, and – on the occasions when her mother does speak – barely managing to be respectful.

We come to understand that this is a migrant story – the mother came to Australia from Hong Kong and she and her husband made great sacrifices so their daughters could have every advantage. In their turn, the daughters grow up in a different culture, unable to speak their parents’ language, relating to them in mutual incomprehension. In my reading, the narrator is lost between two worlds, having been overwhelmed by the attractions of western culture but not quite at home there. Her mother becomes an enigmatic emblem of the culture she has lost: mostly silent, patient, largely unreadable.

None of this is spelled out. It’s conveyed by something unsettling going on beneath the flat, unemotional surface of the writing. There’s no direct speech. Most characters and most places are unnamed. We are often given details but not the general picture or the way the details connect: it’s as if the narrator is a visitor to the world, interested but largely uncomprehending. It’s a book that cries out for some close reading.

Page 75 is a good example of what I mean. The narrator is remembering a visit to the father of her husband, Laurie (Laurie is one of the few named characters):

Laurie had taken a photo of me standing next to the bright yellow car in a field of green sugarcane. As we drove he pointed out his old high school, the house of a childhood friend, the beaten track where he’d trained and competed as a kid. We stopped at a large lake, which seemed to be an almost perfect circle. Laurie explained that the lake had been formed by a crater, and that no one knew how deep it really was. He’d swum across it many times as a teenager, and once, he and his first girlfriend had borrowed a friend’s canoe and taken a tent and camped at the other side.

(Page 75)

This seems straightforward, but there’s a hint of the uncanny valley about it. As the first sentence focuses on the colours of the photograph (a product, perhaps of the narrator’s studies of visual art), you hardly notice that it places the car in a canefield – the reader almost automatically adjusts the image to place the car on the roadside next to the canefield, but the discrepancy has a subliminal effect. Then there’s the lack of names or sense of place. An Australian reader will know they are in North Queensland, probably driving from Cairns airport through sugarcane country, then up the steep climb to the Atherton Tableland, and stopping at Lake Barrine (or possibly Lake Eacham). Stripping out the names could be a matter of avoiding the colonisers’ language, an oblique acknowledgement of Indigenous ownership. In the immediate context, though, it seems to stem from the narrator’s lack of engagement with the world beyond her immediate relationship. She sees only what Laurie draws to her attention.

Once arrived at their destination, there’s this:

Even though he had not lived there for many years, Laurie moved around with a deep sense of familiarity, the kind that could only come from childhood. He went freely from room to room, picking up objects like he owned them, knowing all the paintings on the walls and where everything was kept. In the spare room, he found a shoebox full of old photos, and showed me one of his fifth birthday party, all the boys dressed up as pirates, hanging off a wooden ship his father had built for them, and that had stayed in the garden for many years.

There is very little description of the rooms or the objects that Laurie picks up. It’s as if the narrator isn’t at home enough in the world to name them, or even perhaps see them. By contrast, Laurie has a place, a piece of country, a house, that are full of memories. Even though he now lives in the unnamed city that has a university and trams, he still has this deeply familiar childhood place, a rootedness – exactly what the narrator lacks. Even after years away from his father, there’s a sense of continuity in the relationship. On the following pages it turns out that the father is an artist and can talk to the narrator about art in a way that her mother simply cannot (though once again we are told nothing of the conversation’s content.

This passage appears toward the end of the book. I chose it because of my arbitrary policy of picking page 75 for a little close reading when I blog about books, but also because I’m a North Queenslander. What’s true of the descriptions here is also true of places in Japan, and in Glebe in Sydney (I think). Jessica Au has given us a tremendously subtle portrait of a second-generation immigrant trying to find her bearings, and perhaps – depending how you read the book’s final moment, which I won’t spoil here – succeeding.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Cold Enough for Snow.

12 responses to “Jessica Au’s cold enough for snow

  1. Haha Jonathan … I just posted on this book yesterday. I thought about focusing on the immigrant story, but in the end didn’t. It’s an interesting book with so many angles you can discuss it from, isn’t it. And the writing is so simple and yet mesmerising.

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    • Your review gives a much fuller sense of the book, Sue. You clearly loved it more than I did, though I liked it a lot. Interestingly I was more drawn in by the remembered episodes than the trip to Japan.

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      • I read it very slowly Jonathan … which means it seeped in. I wouldn’t say I was drawn in to one more than the other. Probably more that a mix of individual “vignettes” grabbed me from past and present.

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  2. I focussed on the mother-daughter relationship, but zeroing in on one page brings out other aspects, including her relationship with Laurie, which I have to confess barely registered with me.

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    • Laurie is pretty shadowy as a character, Lisa. Yet the North Queensland connection felt vivid to me. The account of her university experience is something I would have dwelt on if I had more time. This post was largely written in snatched moments

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  3. Thanks to you both – JS and WG – I have purchased this book on-line. I thought exactly JS of those two lakes you referenced even though it is almost 50 years since I first and only visited them in 1974. And WG – the fact that it is set largely in Japan (places unnamed intrigues me enough to want to know if I might in fact identify them as JS did of his familiar childhood territory in FNQ.

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    • You probably will recognise some places Jim … I did though I decided not to try with those that didn’t immediately stand out but I felt I knew.

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      • I agree. I recognized Ueno Park, and an art gallery that I wouldn’t be able to name either, plus other places outside Tokyo. There’s probably an interesting paper to be written about which places are named and why

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      • Yes, I reckon there is.

        I did look up the church in Osaka. I guessed the architect but didn’t know the church. It was there when we were in Osaka but it’s clearly building a following because he has one. Love his work. And yes, I recognised Ueno Park too. Ueno is where we usually stay in Tokyo.

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      • There were more places named than I had expected – some with which I was familiar or thought I could recognise given general locations – having at times visited Tōkyō (first in 1976 last time in 2016)) staying with friends or meeting up with others – and in the general Ōsaka/Kyōto/Kōbe region, too. My local regions though were more the western end of Honshū, all of Shikoku (the 88-temple pilgrimage pathway especially), and all corners of Kyūshū/much of Okinawa’s main island. The same too with coastal/Atherton tablelands areas of FNQ and of Hong Kong – so I relished the setting of all three places. My only quibble was with the title – which had it all been set in Hokkaidō I might have gone along with. The writer is correct that October is still typhoon time – the worst of the typhoons come at the end of the season – late September till latter October. But snow (maybe atop Mt Fuji at c.3770 metres) – not really. I read it last night – beautifully flowing internal conversation – enough to convince me of its believability! It made me want to be privy to the similar thoughts flowing through the protagonist’s mother’s mind at the same time.

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      • Yes, you’re right Jim that there were a few places that located you. And yes it would have been great to know the mothers thoughts but of course that wasn’t the point.

        I don’t think the title was suggesting it was cold enough for snow … it had just been the mother’s wish but it clearly wasn’t going to happen. Part of the book’s playing with desires, expectations, control?

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      • You’re right, Jim. The book made me yearn to hear the mother’s point of view. Maybe Jessica Au will write a sequel

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