It’s fitting that at least one of my selections for #ReadIndies is from Fitzcarraldo Editions, as the idea for this month of reading (thought up by Lizzy) grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, back in 2020. Fitzcarraldo are a personal favourite, always bringing out intriguing fiction, non-fiction and works which straddle both categories! “Cold Enough for Snow” by Jessica Au won the Novel Prize, a “new, biennial award…for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form” – and it’s not hard to see why…

Clocking in at 94 pages, “Cold Enough…” could actually probably be described as a novella, but despite its brevity it explores deep themes in a way that lodges in the heart and mind. Its story is that of a mother and daughter, both travelling from separate countries to meet in Tokyo. Here, they explore the city, eating out and walking along canals, visit art galleries and avoid the sudden torrential rains. Ostensibly narrated by the daughter, the narrative in fact dips back and forth in time as memories are shared and explored, with other viewpoints coming to the fore. Family members seem to take over the story at times; memories often seem uncertain; and the journey itself at times seems elusive… Is the story in fact being told by an unreliable narrator – or, indeed, more than one of those…?

The building was cramped and badly lit, and many of the works hung in fussy, elaborate frames. But each still contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and parks and gardens and ever-changing light. Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Well – “Cold Enough…” is a beautifully written and clever book, and it captures the city and the places visited really vividly. The daughter/narrator has left her partner at home in Australia, where she now lives; the mother is from China, but raised in Hong Kong; Tokyo, therefore, might be considered neutral territory for them to meet. Certainly the daughter seems to have a need for a meeting, though this is unspecified, and she dominates the events she relates. Her mother is a passive, neutral figure; quiet and unassertive, she seems content to follow her daughter through the various locations. However, when the narrative reaches the stage where the daughter leaves her mother at a hotel and goes off hiking, the whole concept becomes much more uncertain, to the point where I started questioning the reliability of my narrator and the reality of much of what she’d been relating.

It was a grey, cold day and we were the only two people in the room. I asked my mother what she believed about the soul and she thought for a moment. Then, looking not at me but at the hard, white light before us, she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting.

I don’t want to say too much more about the storyline as such, and in truth the joy of this book is as much in the telling as what’s told. Au’s writing is elegant and allusive, and her explorations of the past along with the failings of memory is very moving. Both the mother and the daughter have moved on from the places in which they were born, and so finding a place where they can both feel comfortable and reconnect is potentially difficult; Japan seems to offer that place, but much is left suggested rather than said in this evocative book.

As always, Fitzcarraldo can be relied upon to release an individual and memorable book which again seems to suggest that the blue fiction cover might be slightly misleading; Au herself is Chinese-Australian and so it’s hard to avoid thinking of “Cold Enough…” as autofiction. I have no problem with that at all; at the end of the day this is a book which explores family relationships and memories in a way that keeps it lingering in the mind; and if this is what Au can do with her first novel, I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with many thanks)