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[412] Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan

” I heard the door open and my mother outside, her voice tiny and stretched, screaming at him as he made for the Nova. I sat on the edge of my bed, calmly parting my hair. Like everything else that had happened that winter, I was not going to let this stop me from being happy. ” (9, 239)

Snow Angels is told in retrospection by Arthur Pakinson, who is returning to a rural community in Pennsylvania for Christmas as a middle-aged man. The story links two families, almost indirectly, by a tragedy that affects them in profusely painful manner. Set in mid-1970s, the novel revolves around two characters, Arthur Pakinson and Annie Marchand. Arthur is the narrator who endures his parents’ divorce in one winter while at the same time, Annie, once his babysitter, falls victim to a tragic series of events concomitant to her dismal, failing marriage with Glenn and her careless lifestyle.

All day I had been thinking that tonight was going to be something big, and this was the last chance. I half wanted them to attack each other, throw a lamp through the picture window so the cops would come. Instead, all I heard was mumbling. (5, 54)

Despite their being outwardly happy, Arthur’s parents are selfish and immature, putting their needs ahead of their two children. As they undergo a divorce, Arthur’s world begins to change. He becomes quiet and unsentimental, complying with his parents’ decision and assimilating to the change of socioeconomic situation with disinterest. As she weathers the marriage crisis, with the help of a shrink and plenty of boozes, it dawns on Arthur that his mother does not suddenly become tough and efficient, but puts on a false and nearly tireless optimism that suffocates her son, who decides to take on a new happiness without minding his parents.

I don’t like coming home. It keeps me from being nostalgic, which by nature I am. Even before the plane begins its descent, I find myself dreading the questions left unanswered by my childhood. Annie. My parents. My own lost years. (1, 15)

On top of the divorce, and fear and confusion that typically define adolescence, Arthur’s life during those years are overshadowed by the tragic part that involves the 14-year-old boy in Annie and her daughter’s heartbreaking calamity. Annie’s story, albeit sad and excruciating, does not invite my empathy as much as Arthur’s mental torment does. Annie’s affair with her friend’s boyfriend has not only showed her selfishness and impudence, it also causes her daughter’s life out of her negligence. Her careless actions lead to the haunting beginning, and the end, of this deeply felt and tormented tale.

Because though it was already happening to me, I could not see how I would ever come to hate the people I loved. Yet at the same time I could do nothing to stop it, and that would not change for a very long time. (11, 305)

Snow Angels is very bleak but it has the power to move. With such clarity, heart-wrenching and yet dispassionate story-telling, O’Nan gives us profound insight into adolescent trauma and how such trauma predisposes one’s perception in life. It leaves me in awe of how limited our choices in life are, especially when the ones we love most deprive us of those choices. The memory of trauma is long.

305 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. So O’Nan is pursuing not only creepy stories, and stories about the elderly, but also adolescents? I just started Emily, Alone on audio. My expectations are very high.

    • O’Nan is spinning in all directions. He’s quite a prolific author with 11 books over 10 years. I’ve got a lot of choices to explore in my upcoming holidays. I’m definitely reading Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone during my little birthday getaway between 11/18-11/21.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this so much. I’ll admit O’Nan is not my favorite writer but you do make this one sound good.

    • So far I have read two—The Night Country and Snow Angels, which are completely different—and they are satisfying. Give him a try. He’s very lyrical, even for a horror story like The Night Country.

  3. Good thing O’Nan is such a prolific author… I’ll have titles to enjoy for a long time!

  4. I just read his upcoming novel The Odds and really enjoyed it. It was my first O’Nan novel, but this one sounds like it could be my second. Thanks!

  5. I just pre-order The Odds as well! I’m excited! 🙂

  6. Snow Angels is also the title, I think, of a noir mystery by Jim Thompson, which was shortlisted for the Edgar Awards. A very different book from this one. Wonder why publishers allow books to have the same titles?

    • When I looked up this title, the search returned with Jim Thompson book also. I think this is an awfully common title with some of the most common words.

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