Anna Kavan | Popular Library | 1974 | 207 pages
A slippery treatise on all-consuming obsession and desire masquerading as apocalyptic science fiction, Ice exposes its protagonist’s unreliable nature early in the narrative, declaring his chronic suffering from headaches and insomnia and the resulting “horrible dreams” from prescribed medication.
The unnamed narrator returns to his hometown after a long absence, driven by a desire to see a girl whose affection was ultimately lost to a romantic rival. After a childhood of abuse from a sadistic mother, the girl (also unnamed but repeatedly referred to as “fragile” and “glass-like”) now lives trapped in an unhappy marriage, but does not relish the visit from her former suitor. Upon his arrival, she flees both men, escaping into an unknown future.
Against this broken love triangle, a strange climatic change unfolds over the town. An advance of ice and snow flurries marks the arrival of an unnatural cold season, driving polar weather across the country. Although details are not forthcoming, speculation suggests the pervasive temperature change is the result of some undetermined man-made event, perhaps nuclear in origin. News, it seems, is also not to be trusted.
The narrator sets off in pursuit of the girl, but his intentions are far from noble. His own recurring dreams and fantasies do not revolve around her rescue and potential rehabilitation, but objectify her as a delicate object to be bruised by his touch. His own sense of reality seems to blur between dream and fantasy, with descriptions of the advance of kaleidoscopic sheets of ice. These fantastic visions sometimes accompany specific, first-hand descriptions of the girl’s flight, details the narrator could not possibly possess.
Booking international passage on a freighter to a city on a fjord, the narrator witnesses the girl fall under the control of another man, a blue-eyed brute who ultimately becomes known as “the warden”. The relationship between the three establishes the motif for the entire novel.
A travelogue of sorts ensues, sending the narrator through a string of various gray and ruined port cities, following the ephemeral trail of the girl and the various incarnations of the warden, who is by turn, city official, guerrilla fighter, or head of state. The girl remains passive, however, a frightened captive of her powerful keeper, but suspicious and afraid of the relentless advances made by the narrator.
Fractured sheets of mountainous ice continue to advance, laying waste to countries and precipitating civil wars, as the narrator keeps one step ahead of the tightening circle of glacial masses. He crosses frontiers and books passage to the next port of call in an attempt to confront the warden and take possession of the girl. But how literal is this world?
And does the warden even really exist?
The girl flatly states how closely she views the intentions of both warden and narrator, shrinking and withering from the touch of both. Beyond acknowledging a growing, brother-like affinity towards the warden, blurring the boundaries between them, the narrator himself experiences a near body-switch, briefly occupying the warden’s body and experiencing a direct point-of-view from behind his icy blue eyes.
Ice ultimately answers no questions, but instead posits a rather dark view of human relations, characterized by perpetual cycles of control and victimhood. Its troubled characters occupy a greater, fatalistic world, one that traps its inhabitants in an existence beyond their influence, with no redemptive path out—perhaps save for a final relief hinted at by a gun stashed in the glovebox of a car.