About the Book
1914: Young Anton Heideck has arrived in Vienna, eager to make his name as a journalist. While working part-time as a private tutor, he encounters Delphine, a woman who mixes startling candour with deep reserve. Entranced by the light of first love, Anton feels himself blessed. Until his country declares war on hers.
1927: For Lena, life with a drunken mother in a small town has been impoverished and cold. She is convinced she can amount to nothing until a young lawyer, Rudolf Plischke, spirits her away to Vienna. But the capital proves unforgiving. Lena leaves her metropolitan dream behind to take a menial job at the snow-bound sanatorium, the Schloss Seeblick.
1933: Still struggling to come terms with the loss of so many friends on the Eastern Front, Anton, now an established writer, is commissioned by a magazine to visit the mysterious Schloss Seeblick. In this place of healing, on the banks of a silvery lake, where the depths of human suffering and the chances of redemption are explored, two people will see each other as if for the first time.
Format: eARC (368 pages) Publisher: Hutchinson
Publication date: 2nd September 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
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Although Snow Country is the second book in a planned trilogy – the first of which was Human Traces published in 2005 – it can be read as a standalone.
Opening with a dramatic prologue that some readers may find too graphic for their taste, the book explores some profound psychological and moral issues through events in the lives of its principal characters – Anton Heideck, Lena Fontana and, to a lesser extent, Rudolf Plischke.
The first part of the book featuring Anton Heideck provides a vivid picture of pre-First World War Vienna with its coffee houses, opera houses and concert halls. Unfortunately, most of the delights of the city are out of the reach of young Anton as he tries to scrape a living as a private tutor and journalist. Anton begins an intense relationship with the enigmatic Delphine, a young woman hired as a companion and French tutor to a Viennese family.
As Anton becomes more successful, assignments to Paris and Moscow follow as well as a trip to report on the US-led construction of the Panama Canal. The latter has resonance for citizens of France because of the earlier involvement of Ferdinand de Lesseps, for a time a national hero because of his role in the construction of the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, his attempts to build a sea-level canal across the isthmus of Panama ended in failure with investors in the project losing everything. However, the outbreak of the First World War has momentous consequences for Anton, leaving emotional scars and unanswered questions.
Lena’s story is one of a young girl growing up with few advantages in life, except perhaps that her alcoholic mother has chosen to raise her rather than give her up for adoption like so many of Lena’s half-sisters and brothers, the result of her mother’s brief couplings with various men. Even learning the identity of her father leaves Lena feeling abandoned and her instinctive self-expression and unconventional nature sets her apart from others. Gradually she transforms herself from illiterate school girl to independent young woman although not without moments of desperation and emotional disappointment along the way, including a relationship with idealistic young lawyer, Rudolf Plischke.
Although the book seems to be at least two different stories with little connection between them, chance – or perhaps, fate – sees Anton, Lena and Rudolf arrive at the sanatorium, Schloss Seeblick. Lena is employed there as a servant, and Anton and Rudolf are there for professional reasons. Lena is the connection between the two men, although they are unaware of this. For Lena and Rudolf their meeting is an opportunity to resolve some unfinished business between them.
Initially Anton’s interest in the sanatorium is purely professional, having been commissioned to write an article about it. He learns more about the sanatorium and the philosophy behind its treatments through his conversations with head therapist Martha Midwinter. These include discussions about the theories of Freud and others, a lot of which I’ll freely admit went over my head. Whilst studying the papers in the sanatorium’s archives for his article, Anton comes across a letter whose contents resonate with him: ‘The human mind has evolved in a way that makes it unable to deal with the pain of its own existence. No other creature is like this.’ Anton begins to wonder if Schloss Seeblick might offer him a way to resolve his own mental torment, caused by a combination of the unresolved issues in his personal life and his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. Through his subsequent sessions with Martha, we begin to learn more about Anton’s wartime experiences and understand their lasting impact on him, including what we would today recognize as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The observation that ‘life is full of missed connections, of bad timing’ is an apt description of the book and I enjoyed Snow Country, especially Lena’s story, although I was left with the feeling that I wasn’t quite clever enough to appreciate everything the author was seeking to explore in the book. However, I guess it’s no bad thing for a book to leave you with the sense there’s more to the world, and to other people, than you think you know.
My thanks to Hutchinson for my advance review copy via NetGalley. Sebastian Faulks will be appearing at Henley Literary Festival on 2nd October to talk about Snow Country. The event is also being live-streamed and tickets are still available at the time of writing.
In three words: Profound, complex, moving
Try something similar: The Ghost Road by Pat Barker or The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon
About the Author
Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953, and grew up in Newbury, the son of a judge and a repertory actress. He attended Wellington College and studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, although he didn’t enjoy attending either institution. Cambridge in the 70s was still quite male-dominated, and he says that you had to cycle about 5 miles to meet a girl. He was the first literary editor of The Independent, and then went on to become deputy editor of The Sunday Independent. Sebastian Faulks was awarded the CBE in 2002. He and his family live in London. (Photo/bio credit: Goodreads author page)