Published in 1967, Ice (Peter Owen, 158 pages) is a harrowing, oblique, beautiful novel increasingly viewed as a modern classic on par with1984 and Brave New World. Kavan creates a world overrun by vast ice sheets caused by nuclear winter. The anti-hero narrator, a man obsessed with a frail, stunning young woman, chronicles the doom he foresees for his world and the girl who is the object of his fascination. Kavan’s prose swerves breathtakingly from the delicate and the brutal.
Ice shifts between bleak realism and a haunted panorama of psychological terrors. The plot is episodic, evading conventional patterns. None of the characters has a name or is “likable” or “relatable,” as the current jargon has it; but do not read Kavan for those ends. Lyric mastery and a tone of brooding psychic disturbance are the bedrock of the novel, a startling penetration of beauty couched within doom.
Even in the narrator’s first encounter with the girl, we sense the foreboding and dangerous power of constraint:
She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and of life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection. The first thing I had to do was win her trust, so I was always gentle to her, careful to restrain my feelings. She was so thin that, when we danced, I was afraid of hurting her if I held her tightly. Her prominent bones seem brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like the moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass.
Later, the young woman’s extreme fragility sparks sadism in her pursuer, a menacing Beast watching over Beauty:
Her face haunted me: the sweep of her long lashes, her timid enchanting smile; and then a change of expression I could produce at will, a sudden shift, a bruised look, a quick change to terror, to tears. The strength of the temptation alarmed me. The black descending arm of the executioner. . . . Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore.
The notion leads the narrator to conclude the girl and he were victims of circumstance, victims of each other. Why, then, not surrender to the forces encroaching upon them? Why should either resist? She is immature, he believes, too malleable; he must take her with him.
The silver-white-haired heroine appears across Kavan’s later fiction like a leitmotif. Kavan lead a difficult life. She had a miserable childhood and two unhappy marriages and harbored a life-long addiction to heroin. She suffered mental health issues including paranoia and hallucinations that landed her in an asylum, recounted painfully in her fictionalized memoir Asylum Piece. But Ice is not a disguised parable of addiction or abuse, though it rings with their influence. In the end, the narrator abducts the young woman under the pretense of escape:
A terrible cold world of ice and death had replaced the living world we had always known. Outside there was only the deadly cold, the frozen vacuum of an ice age, life reduced to mineral crystals; but here, in our lighted room [of an automobile], we were safe and warm. I looked into her face, it was smiling, untroubled; I could see no fear, no sadness now. She smiled and pressed close, content with me in our home.
The respite of flight in car in a blizzard, with a man carrying a pistol, is not reassuring. Neither, for the reader, is the menaced conclusion of the novel.
Ice can be grouped, plausibly, with the post-apocalyptic novels rampant these days—but it is so much more. And so much less. There are no boy-toy hang-ups about gadgets and machinery, heroic posturing, or wished-for gender utopias. In Ice, the scientific cause of the environmental devastation is vaguely framed, and we do not know precisely how or why it was triggered. It is as if J.G. Ballard had met Leonora Carrington. Do not look to this novel for psychological “uplift,” however you may define it. Ice is a harsh, brilliant tale underwritten by a poignant lyricism that mourns a world put under siege by our compulsions.
Vic Peterson, author of The Berserkers, 2022