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S. J. Parris and Stephanie Merritt

Review < Back

The Snow Queen – Michael Cunningham's poetic meditation on life and death

Sunday 11th May 2014

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The Snow Queen is one of the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales. It unfolds in a dream-like sequence of scenes; its themes are innocence and experience, mortality, love and the quest for understanding. The figure of the Snow Queen has inspired various imitations, from CS Lewis's White Witch to Disney's Frozen, and now Pulitzer-winner Michael Cunningham's sixth novel, which makes the homage explicit in its title and epigraph.

But Cunningham's novel is nothing so obvious as a modern-day retelling. Instead, he recreates the original's episodic nature, full of echoes and allusions, on his own familiar ground: a group of cultured, middle-aged New Yorkers trying to make sense of their lives in the face of an overwhelmingly pessimistic prognosis, on both the personal and political scale. The novel begins in 2004, as the US teeters on the brink of a second Bush term. For Cunningham's characters – gay, bohemian, liberal – this would be devastating, were they not already facing the more immediate tragedy of terminal cancer...

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