A mother and daughter meet in Japan for vacation. They take walks, ride trains, visit art galleries, eat in restaurants, plus shop for gifts. This is just about all the surface action in “ Cold Enough for Snow , ” the slim and sly second novel by the Australian author Jessica Au. The daughter narrates in calm prose that evokes the sound of a rake carefully tracing a pattern in sand. Along the way, she shares a few memories: of a creepy patron at the Chinese restaurant where she worked as a waitress; of the otherworldly allure of a beloved college professor’s house; of her first visit to the home where her husband grew up. We never find out where either character is travelling from, or much about the lives that await them upon return.
From the start, there are signs that mother and daughter are dancing around something. But it’s hard for the characters—much less the reader—to say what that something might be. The joint vacation came about, the daughter says, because she “was beginning to feel that it was important, ” with regard to reasons that she “could not yet name. ” Maybe the answer lies in the particular pointed absence of the narrator’s father, who is never mentioned. Or maybe it will be found in the mother’s past—her emigration from Hong Kong many years earlier and the family she left behind there. But , other than a vague impression of “poverty and family and war, ” the particular daughter knows little about this past. It might be good, the girl suggests at one point, “to stop sometimes plus reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy. ” Hint, hint, Mom.
Buried secrets and repressed memories are common storytelling devices, the supposed treasures that many atmospheric novels of consciousness use to entice readers. In otherwise loosely plotted narratives, such treasures keep us digging—that is, keep us turning the page. This approach to literature suggests an approach to human relationships: that it is by acquiring knowledge about what people have been through that we come to know them best.
At times, Au seems to be encouraging this very approach, teaching us to read the girl book the same way the particular narrator reads her mother: by watching closely regarding clues about backstory, waiting for the moment when it finally reveals itself as the story. The narrator prides herself, above all, on being a keen observer of her surroundings. In the very first scene from the novel, she describes the sidewalk with almost scientific specificity. It looks like asphalt, but isn’t—it’s “a series of small, square tiles, if you cared enough to notice. ” This is more than a habit. It’s an ethic: noticing will be equated with caring. Later, the daughter speaks knowledgeably to her mother about pentimenti, layers of brushstrokes hidden beneath the surface of certain old paintings. The average viewer might not be able to detect all of them, but painstaking specialists can. As a reader, it’s easy to feel, in passages like this one, that your own brushstroke-detecting ability is being tested. Like most tests, it isn’t exactly relaxing: you want to prove yourself to be as careful as the narrator, and yet you expect to fail. That sense of failure—to see sharply enough, to read closely enough—creates its own peculiar form of engagement.
And yet the novel, at its best, also complicates this metric of success, throwing doubt on the inherent value of uncovering what’s concealed. The narrator herself has flashes of awareness, when she seems to see that digging beneath the surface isn’t the only way to acquire insight. Is there such a thing as reading too closely? She recalls being a college student experiencing an intellectual awakening: “I had become addicted to the tearing associated with my thoughts, ” the lady says—to experiences of analysis that involve revision, even rupture. She began to dissect her experiences in the same way that will she read books and movies, wanting “every moment to count for something. ” But , looking back, she “realized how insufferable this was: the need to . . . read meaning into everything. ” If we search relentlessly for pentimenti, we risk missing the actual picture.
There’s also the possibility that, in looking for someone’s backstory, we’ll get the narrative wrong. One saga from the narrator’s often opaque family history has stuck with her for years. It’s a slightly maudlin tale about her uncle and his doomed first love, a failure that he never seemed to recover from. She remembers hearing the story multiple times as a child, but , when she asks her mother about it as an adult, her mom claims it never happened. The narrator’s sister can’t remember the story, either; it reminds her, she says, of a soap opera that she watched in high school. The incident feels like the warning: push too hard for a story about someone’s past and you end up clinging to something false or incomplete, obscuring the very reality you hoped to illuminate.
Of course , it’s possible to perceive this warning without heeding it. All throughout the vacation in Japan, Au’s narrator keeps prodding her mother, in different ways, to open up. But the mother resists. No, she doesn’t want to try a nude public bath. No, she doesn’t have anything to say about how abstract art makes her feel. Being pressed on the subject seems to make her “panic, as if called to give an answer to a question she did not understand. ”
It is an unusual species of spoiler, but a spoiler nonetheless, in order to reveal that, by the last page, the narrator still doesn’t have the information she seems to have been searching for. She’s inclined to read this as failure. “The trip was nearly ending, ” she states, “and it had not done what I had wanted this to. ” But did she know what she wanted in the first place? Au’s novel is perhaps most masterly in the way it evokes our dissociation through desire—our own and other people’s. In one poignant scene, the narrator watches her mother walk toward her on the street and realizes that there is “no clear sense of recognition on her face, as if I was the ghost the girl did not want to meet. ” To be the particular ghost is usually crucially different than being a ghost: the daughter has not been hollowed out into a stranger; her identity has been replaced by someone else’s. Perhaps this is the real danger of misreading people—that, in doing so, we can completely misrecognize them, not only erasing their true self but altering this for our own purposes.
In the end, the trip isn’t a bust, plus neither is the book that it yields. The narrator may not have unearthed anything dramatic—or anything at all—from her mother’s past, but she has been alive to, and curious about, the present in that particular way which travel in its best makes possible. The duo has let their hours intertwine—on trains, inside hotel rooms, in restaurants, in museums and galleries—and paid attention to the same things. This is a kind of intimacy that involves shared experience, rather than shared knowledge. It really is similar to the connection that we arrive at feel with the narrator their self, as her flashbacks string together. We are missing “basic” information about her; at the same time, we know her well. Whatever meaning such intimacy contains may be impossible to state directly without mangling it. But we can sense it in the soft, patient warmth of Au’s prose, which sometimes feels attuned to truths just out of the narrator’s reach.
The mother does, of course , eventually recognize her child. She just had to get close enough—in space, not in mind. In the next scene, the pair share a room at an inn for the night. Nothing dramatic happens, but I was moved by the details: they eat curry and rice from a supermarket; the mother presents the daughter with a gift of thick, bright-red wool socks, which makes her laugh. They fall asleep together listening to a storm outside. The particular daughter can’t say what the mother is thinking about, plus neither can we. Yet we can still feel their own connection, and feel, too, how it was organically coaxed into a heightened state. They are not ghosts—they are people who eat and sleep and make each other laugh.
We are often prone to see other people—especially our parents—as mysteries we can’t help trying to solve, jigsaw puzzles to be completed by some missing fact or incident. “Cold Enough for Snow” understands this impulse, yet makes the quiet case for another approach, one that might be more common in life than our books tend to allow, and that we might simply call, for lack of any more technical term, being together while we can.