GIRL IN SNOW, a debut neighborhood mystery, speaks to both a literary and commercial audience. Kukafka is an absolutely brilliant writer, her descriptions are vivid, and character-specific. You truly see the world with three new sets of eyes in her alternating narrative that follows a shy young boy who observes to the point of obsession, a middle-aged cop who refuses to truly know himself, and a teenage girl determined to play the outcast society has made her into. To top it off, the plot is engaging, subtle, and not completely predictable.
Kukafka has an incredible ability to shift point of view and tense in a way that enhances her characters, lets the reader in on who they really are, and it isn’t immediately obvious that she’s doing it. Cameron’s chapters are written in third, his thoughts are narrated to us, tenses shift from past to future perfect, and dialogue happens around him using quotations in present. This lets us see him as an internal character, one who has things done to him, one who observes. Then there’s Jade who operates in the present tense, quotation marks enclose the conversations she chooses to tell us about, the way they actually happen often preceded by a script, the idealized version, the way she wished it had happened. This contrast helps the reader see how she sees herself placed in society and how that vision of herself and her reality differs from expectation. Finally, there’s Russ who’s all past tense, doesn’t let himself in, or the reader in on his fixation, the one moment that he hides from himself. His conversations are never in quotations and they also occur in the past not present in a way that makes them seem like recall, echoes of his day job on the police force. My only true criticism of Kukafka’s debut is that there seems to be something missing between Jade and her mother–a subtle tension I can’t quite articulate. I don’t quite believe Jade as the victim of physical abuse.
Kukafka does what Bryn Chancellor wanted to do in SYCAMORE. Chancellor’s book was more difficult to get through, as there were no headings with chapters, and her writing between the six(?) different points of view wasn’t as clearly differentiated. The Kirkus Review calls it “overwritten,” and I’d have to agree. Unfortunately, there are quite a few similarities between GIRL IN SNOW and SYCAMORE, enough to make you wonder who was inspired by whom? While both books involve solving the murder of a young girl who keeps a journal in a small town, that is the least similar plot-choice I’d call attention to. Kukafka writes of Cameron’s statue nights, when he roams the neighborhood at night effectively stalking Lucinda. Chancellor’s Jess also has a habit of night walking, and both night walkers find their quiet, calm place in the most notable natural feature of their towns, the cliffs for Cameron and the Wash for Jess. Both dead characters, Lucinda and Jess have illicit relationships with an older man. For Jess it’s her friend’s father, a stressed-out, depressed, washed-up artist, who ends up being blamed for her death even though he didn’t actually do it. For Lucinda it’s the father of the baby she nannies for, Mr. Thornton, a stressed-out, depressed, work-a-holic with a new baby and terminally ill wife. However, the one scene in the novel that really struck me was the pinkie-holding scene, in both books. For Jess, the pinkie squeeze is her sexual re-awakening, she’s slowly getting over the humiliation she felt in her first physical relationship back in her hometown. For Russ, the pinkie squeeze between him and Lee, his partner on the force, is his own sexual awakening, a nod to who he really is, and a confirmation of who he loves. Who knows? Maybe it’s just because I was reading these simultaneously. Either way, I didn’t finish SYCAMORE, it was a chore to read, though many of the descriptions were beautiful, it all just became too much to keep track of. GIRL IN SNOW, on the other-hand, I finished in two days.
As a final note, I’d like to add that I found the letter from Kukafka’s editor to be incredibly condescending. She focuses so much on Kukafka’s age, as if it is years and not life experience and observation that make for a good writer.