Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica AU (New Directions 2022)
Reviewed by Hannah Wyatt
I recently read Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow—a meditation-style novella that blurs the line between interior monologue and impressionism. As the narrator travels through Tokyo with her mother, she contemplates her love for art and Greek drama, the reality of her memories, and the distance between parent and child. Separation is explored in the resentment and shame the narrator feels towards her own cultural duality, as well as the ways in which she imagines her mother’s own cultural experience following her move away from Hong Kong. Themes of place, art, and literature are explored, and so is the concept of taking up space (and a lack thereof). By the end of the story, I was left with a great sense of dreaminess and wonder, questions about the transferral of parental identity, and a fondness for Au’s storytelling.
And as I moved through the book’s sections, which mirrored the subtle disorientation of the artwork the narrator admired, I found myself wrapped up in a world that was entirely slowed down. Each smaller moment was drawn into a longer meditation on a sister’s experience in a foreign city, or an uncle’s heart condition and the star-crossed romance in his youth.
There is even a section dedicated to the narrator’s imagining of her mother’s childhood in Hong Kong, which at times is painted as brutal:
“She had told me once that as a girl she had seen a man jump from a five-story balcony, and another time a dog being beaten by the roadside.” (37)
It’s apparent that she thinks she knows her mother. She is often proven wrong. And yet one thing remains clear to her throughout—she and her mother are very similar, and perhaps it’s bound to be that way regardless of intervention.
I couldn’t help but feel that this captivating narrator wanted to run away from the stories most closely tied to her mother, or leave them locked up in a drawer. As much as she dwells on them, she can’t even tell if her memories are accurate or more likely a product of her own perception. She even notes at one point that she feels shame regarding the part of her life that’s colored by her mother’s cultural influence – their home:
“…I could not help but feel vaguely ashamed.” (34)
Much of the narrator’s insecurity regarding the differences between her current life and the one she grew up in are expressed in the section of the text shown below right. When read as-is, the block of text reveals a lot about her desperate desire to fit into a world of art and academia, to romanticize even the smallest parts of her world.
And when read closer, as a blackout poem shown below left, you begin to see how even the intricacies of her word choices reflect an artistic view of the world. How she feels like she’s doing “judo” to engage in meaningful conversation, how she feels “insufferable” and “fully addicted” to her thoughts. There is a layer here for her perception of others (the full quote), and a layer just below that (individual words from the quote), where she is conscious of how much meaning she puts into these wonderings.
She is holding onto her given life with one hand and stretching as hard as she can to grab something else with her other hand. I found this concept particularly potent as it tied into the complexities of womanhood, family, and even adulthood.
The book is short at 95 pages, but it carves out plenty of time to expand on the slight hesitations we make when we’re trying to understand the people standing right in front of us. For the narrator of Cold Enough for Snow, these people are her family members. Whether or not she will come to her conclusions is left open-ended, but you know that she will continue trying.
Au’s book is filled with beautiful prose that indulges in the scenery of Tokyo interiors—bookstores, darkly lit art museums, and tiled bathhouses with murals of blue-green landscapes. And the title concept—“cold enough for snow”—appears in the story as a puzzle piece in the narrator’s quest to know her mom. I thoroughly enjoyed every page and can’t wait to see what Au writes next.
Hannah Wyatt (she/her) is a writer from West Virginia, with a particular interest in writing fiction and poetic fiction. Hannah’s writing has appeared in Drizzle Review, Calliope at WVU, and Cheat River Review.