Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Sally Prue’s Ice Maiden begins with the terrors of a nightmare and ends in the fierce grip of excitement and dismay, a point of balance that may perhaps signal the beginnings of love. By then the reader has been on a journey into the heart of darkness, from the wilds of the Common among the pitiless and terrifying Tribe, to the nests of mistle thrushes and on into bracken-filled demon-pits and down to the ooze of a cold riverbed.
The Common is a piece of open land bordering the city. But it is depicted here in such close and raw detail that its borders melt away and we could be in the trackless wastes of a primeval wilderness. This is no idyll, however. Here is nature blood-red in tooth and claw. The reader is given ample opportunity to contemplate the bestial, merciless side both of humanity and of the animal kingdom as represented by the Tribe; a band of elfin creatures whose behaviour, despite having some supernatural aspects, is still more reminiscent of wildlife documentaries than of anything found in Tolkien. Darwinism is present, but so too is evolutionary theory in its most perverted form, as the book’s central character remembers what he has witnessed on the streets of 1930s Berlin; the Nazi efforts to ‘purify’ the population by eliminating the disabled and those with special needs, along with Jews, Gypsies and other minorities.
Set just prior to the beginning of the Second World War, the book tells the story of Franz, a refugee boy who doesn’t know he’s a refugee. Franz is a victim of over-protective parenting. But his parents’ thoughtless efforts to keep Franz isolated from the realities of their life, both in Berlin and in England, have misfired badly. A sense of mistrust and of constant danger pervades Franz’s world, and this atmosphere of mortal dread informs the story as a whole. At first Franz sees only selfishness and savagery all around him, but as the narrative moves towards its conclusion he comes to see that there are antidotes to horror, in simple kindness, compassion, love.
The fragility, but also the resilience of love in the face of ever-present danger is a recurrent theme. Instinct, far from forcing all creatures into endless violent competition, can also lead to acts of selflessness and generosity. And yet a constant tension exists between these opposites. Perhaps Ice Maiden can be said to highlight that unnerving point of balance, that moment of excitement and dismay that lies at the heart of life; the risk that must be taken.
Ice Maiden is published by Oxford University Press, as is Cold Tom, Sally Prue’s other story of the Tribe.
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