Written in startling vignettes much like her debut collection of short stories, The Physics of Imaginary Objects (2010), Tina May Hall’s debut novel, The Snow Collectors, draws upon the depressed and desolate. Set in a snowpocalypse, Hall takes readers deep into the icy reaches of both past and future. The very first line reads, “I found the dead woman at the edge of my woods on the last day of January.” What follows is both dark (the obscurity of long-forgotten history, the opaqueness of grief and death) and light (the sun on the snow blinds us, but its whiteness conjures a glimpse of irrefutable purity). Amidst this indomitable setting, Henna, our grieving narrator, a loner in a tight-lipped community, seemingly falls into a backyard murder mystery. She soon embarks upon a strained romance with the investigating town sheriff—his family its own uncanny cast, not to mention his peculiar ancestral home. The irregular local library, too, provides enough intriguing atmosphere to keep the reader invested in Henna’s clandestine sleuthing and researching. The tone, overall, is one of uncertainty, with hints of treachery.
Reading The Snow Collectors, the reader is put in mind of many other great novels set in snow: Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and even Moshfegh’s Eileen. However, Hall’s style is her own—the short snippets propel the plot and almost taunt the reader. Hall writes, “All that ice melting, giving up its lost bodies, corpses strewn across the landscape, leathered by the cold, the bones with their marks of butchery.” The prose is lyrical but measured, evocative but never florid. Hall wields a frank briskness in her words, but not an impatience. Readers see clearly what they need to see, and by that token, they do not see what they do not need to see. So often a mystery disappoints by revealing too much or too little, which is not the case in Hall’s novel.
The Snow Collectors is a surprising blend of genres. Mystery, of course, but of a definitive literary bent. The aforementioned traditional Gothic elements are also woven throughout, but with heavy intent, and Hall’s exploration of grief speaks authentically to its particular expressions and emanations. Readers meet Henna when she is ice-cold, even colder than Hall’s warped and snowy landscape. Some degree of thaw is inevitable, yet a messy, fraught process. After all, Henna’s first real human connection in the novel is with a dead woman in her woods. Henna’s psychological trajectory is just as compelling, if not more so, than the mystery itself. Although, once the mystery is solved, as it must inevitably be, there lingers still a sense of unknowing about Henna. A minor dissatisfaction, that maybe the ending is not the real ending—that Henna’s story is only half-told. Suffice it to say that readers are left with enough questions to spur a welcome sequel. Henna’s fascinating adventures are not yet complete, we can only hope.
In a novella in The Physics of Imaginary Things, Hall writes: “In the snow, she could be anyone, a different person entirely. Shush, shush go the snowshoes until she is lost in the woods, the storm blown up into a near blizzard, and she finds a felled tree to sit down on, tucks the shivering dog behind her knees, waits for it to pass.” It’s hard not to see Mercy, the “she” lost in the storm, as a recent ancestor of Henna. Perhaps whatever harsh weather Mercy survived in 2010 led our Henna to her own wintery woods in 2020. The snow on its own unites them, calls them near kin. Given Hall’s innovative style—its spare, quick pacing coupled with its punchy, exacting prose—readers can easily devour both debuts over a weekend. Then we’ll all be anticipating what’s next, and let’s hope it arrives sooner than 2030.
Publication Date: February 12. 2020
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Reviewed by Courtney Harler