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Ice
(50th Anniversary Edition)
by Anna Kavan
Penguin Classics, $16.00, 208pp
Published: November 2017

Wow, this one was new to me and it rocked my world. It's nothing like anything I've ever read, for both good and bad, and there's a lot of context needed to figure it out, if indeed it can be fully figured out. A great number of people have attempted that over the years and I find that I can both agree and disagree with all of them. Who knows who's right?

'Ice' was originally published in 1967 by Peter Owen and is being presented in a new 50th anniversary edition by Penguin Classics with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem and an afterword by Kate Zambreno. I learned a lot reading their notes on the life and career of 'Anna Kavan', as her life is notably important here, this novel, like most of her books, being somewhat autobiographical in nature.

She was born Helen Woods in the south of France in 1901, so grew with the century. She was the only child of well-to-do Brits, but that suggests a much better life than the one she had. Her father committed suicide when she was ten years old. She was first published as Helen Ferguson, her first married name, though she had been divorced for six years by the time she first saw print in 1929. By that point, her tennis coach had hooked her on heroin, a habit she never managed to kick. She married again, lost a daughter after childbirth, divorced again, attempted suicide and spent regular stints in hospitals, asylums and clinics. By 1940, she took the pseudonym Anna Kavan after the fictional version of herself in her earliest novels, because that doesn't suggest any mental illness at all, right? On the plus side, she travelled a lot.

Most of that history comes to play in 'Ice', the last work to see publication during her lifetime and arguably her first major literary success. Brian Aldiss saw it as the best science fiction novel of 1967, though it's more often described nowadays as 'slipstream' than 'science fiction', slipstream being a term Bruce Sterling coined in 1989 to describe writing that 'simply makes you feel very strange'. Christopher Priest, in his introduction to another edition of 'Ice', describes slipstream as 'a state of mind', 'one that is outside of all categorisation', which imparts 'a sense that reality might not be quite as certain as we think.'

The story is almost non-existent, following a relatively straightforward first chapter. A man, who becomes our narrator, goes to visit his former lover and the husband she chose over him. It doesn't go well and she vanishes. The rest of the book follows his obsessive attempts to find her in a world that is becoming increasingly torn by war and dystopia in the face of a mysterious impending emergency, which is most easily described as a nuclear winter in which the world is gradually overrun by a new ice age.

I say 'most easily' because nothing here plays out with any form of realism, the ice least of all, because it moves at a consistently inconsistent rate. We have no way of knowing whether anything is actually happening or whether our narrator is the most unreliable of all narrators, dogged by hallucinations, delusions and visions. We drift in and out of these without gaps, never knowing what's real and what isn't. Some paragraphs actively contradict their predecessors, which really is as confusing as it sounds. We're told at points that the narrator is psychopathic and schizoid. He's clearly obsessional beyond rationality; nowadays the word 'stalker' springs to mind very quickly indeed. He's prone to controlling behaviour and spouts disturbing lines like, 'I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.' No wonder he panics when he falls under police attention!

The dreamlike nature of all this is heightened by the fact that no character is given a name and, however much we travel around what is presumably the northern hemisphere, locations are not given names either. Being able to keep this up for an entire novel is an achievement in itself, especially as Kavan doesn't lose us in the process. I found it increasingly difficult to put this book down, even as I struggled to figure out what was happening, if anything, to whom it was happening, along with where, why, how and all the other standard questions.

I found myself conjuring up theories too. While we're clearly supposed to see 'the man' as the ex-lover and 'the Warden' as the husband, the dystopian landscape he rules perhaps the imaginary hell that our narrator believes his lost love to inhabit, is that really the case? For instance, is 'the man' also 'the Warden'? If the ex-lover and the husband are the same person, simply different personalities within a schizophrenic mind, that would better explain the way in which 'the man' searches for 'the girl' so desperately. Any other interpretation is inherently creepier.

Of course, what's most fascinating here is that the author is 'the girl' not 'the man'. Her lifelong depression and heroin addiction can't have combined well, so much so that it's almost surprising to find that she didn't finally succumb to an overdose, as is often reported, but to simple heart failure, in 1968. Almost everything she wrote is autobiographical, right down to the travels and the husbands, so it's easy to assume that she placed herself in this book too, with only one female character to choose from. She therefore spends most of the book searching obsessively for herself, finding herself at points. Freedom and captivity seem to be interchangeable. This is far more about being lost than being found.

And, of course, the ice can be taken as metaphor half a dozen different ways, starting and perhaps ending with heroin. I wouldn't wish anyone the life that Emily Woods had, but somehow she channelled it into her writing, building throughout her career to this point, regarded by many as her masterpiece, and all those bad times had their part in getting there.

Frankly, I don't know what 'Ice' is: literature, science fiction, slipstream or some new term that hasn't even been invented yet. I can say that it's the strangest book I've ever read but also, bizarrely, one of the most engaging. I plan on re-reading this in a year or two to see if a fresh run will make any more sense of it. In the meantime, it's highly recommended. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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