Cold Enough for Snow is constructed as a mystery, but the puzzle is its two central characters: a mother and a daughter, who arrive separately from an unnamed country to spend a short autumn holiday together in Tokyo. The novel is Melbourne-based Jessica Au’s UK debut, elliptical and ghostly, gleaming with beautiful imagery as bright as a shoal of tiny tetra fish. It is typhoon season, and the pair’s every action – sharing meals, walking, visiting art galleries, talking obliquely about the past and the present but never the future – appears veiled, as if through a delicate, persistent mist.
Despite Au’s clear, direct prose, these individuals communicate as if under water, and water is an ever-mutable symbol for a relationship which, from the outset, appears equivocal and cryptic: “My mother stayed close to me as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other”. The sense of ambivalence is as strong as Meursault’s opening lines in Camus’s The Outsider: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” The daughter, who is considering whether or not to have a child with her partner, Laurie, acts as narrator: her mother’s conversational input is minimal. The mother is depicted as hesitant, nervous, tired, ageing: a traveller overwhelmed by the strangeness of her new surroundings, although, as the daughter takes pains to note, always crisply attired: “She looked like a well-dressed woman in a movie from maybe twenty or thirty years ago, dated but elegant.” This could be a description of the book itself, which retains a formal, slightly old-fashioned quality.
The daughter has an advantage in that she has previously visited Japan, and her decisions and suggestions guide their activities. Slowly, an edited backstory of both characters emerges – but even here is ventriloquised through the daughter. “I remember that my mother had once told me a story about my uncle … ” Originally from Hong Kong, as a young woman the mother emigrated to a western country – from Au’s descriptions, her destination was most likely Australia, realised with deliberate geographical imprecision, a vagueness which contrasts with the specificities of Au’s portrayal of Japan, and with distanced characters now brought face to face.
“I remember” serves as the principal narrative device – but memory is subjective. As daughter and mother wander through rain-lit streets, she talks in soliloquies about her strict Catholic school, her awkwardness as a university student, her omnipresent feeling of not fitting in, no matter how hard she tries; whether through a cultural or personal inhibition it is not clear. Throughout there is the distinct impression of blame and hostility towards the mother in these targeted, precise memories, which are dotted almost as micro-stories within the main framework of the book.
Every simple gesture or small undertaking hints at ritual, at journeying towards a whole state of being – whether it be reconciliation, or acceptance. Tension builds, like layers of similar colour upon a canvas: “The evening became a deep blue, the temperature began to cool. I was feeling further and further away from everything.” Is the narrator in fact alone, is the novel in fact a processing of grief and loss? This clever, phantom-like work eludes definition.