Where to start with the brilliant debut novel from Kerensa Jennings? Let’s start with the author herself. Contrary to the idea that the “author is dead” it’s often vital we know some information about where the text has come from. Take for example the recent controversy surrounding the work Open Casket by Dana Schutz. I say this because Jennings has a very interesting background; she’s a strategist, producer, professor and also worked as a news journalist. Her career as a journalist took her close to some incredibly dark crimes, most notably the Soham murders. For Jennings, writing Seas of Snow was a kind of cathartic response to what she read and saw during the police investigation.
So with that in mind this isn’t an easy book. In fact I found it very difficult originally. But despite my initial hesitation I found myself thinking about the characters and what might happen next and what they’ll do next. For me, that is definitely one sign that the book is already under my skin. Here’s the synopsis:
“Seas of Snow is a story of broken trust and shattered dreams. Of consequences. Of a life lifted and liberated by poetry. Of a life haunted by darkness and lived in fear.
It is the tale of a young girl who escapes the torment of her life through playtime with her best friend Billy; and through reading and writing poetry, delighting in words for guidance and succour.
The book dances through time, backwards and forwards between the literary reveries and physical abuses of the young girl; and the old woman of today, frail and isolated in a nursing home. Billy Harper, Gracie’s childhood friend, is the only solid presence in her life, and seemingly the only constant. Diaries and poetry books bind the story and the characters.
Set both today and around the time of the second world war in North Tyneside, Seas of Snow is a bleak psychological thriller which traces the motives and actions of Gracie’s Uncle Joe. He appears unexpectedly in Gracie’s life when she’s just five years old. And changes everything.
Seas of Snow is a story of trust and betrayal, of the worst kind.”
Seas of Snow is an unflinching look at domestic abuse. I could hardly bear some of the passages, so it’s really a testament to the writing that this, while being difficult, is a rewarding read. The friendship between Gracie and Billy provides a much needed juxtaposition to the dark violence of Uncle Joe. Jennings has created a vile, frightening character with Joe but interestingly he isn’t the stereotypical baddy we see in fairy-tales or Disney. He isn’t gnarled and ugly in fact he’s more like the character we see Jamie Dornan play in the BBC drama The Fall. He’s a handsome man with a beautiful voice and physique, and he knows this and uses it as a trap for others. The parts of the book containing Joe are some of the most difficult I’ve read and I’ve read American Psycho, for example. I’m a hardened reader. I think what made them all the more difficult to read is that I’m now a parent and Jennings writing is believable.
There’s a lot to be said about this book both in its subject matter and how it’s actually written. One thing that really caught me was the use of poetry and flowers as part of the narrative. Poetry is a crux for Gracie and also an escape from her brutal world. Art, whether it’s paintings, music, books or poetry offers a little portal into a world in which we can escape for a little while. Jennings also uses flowers throughout the book as a powerful motif similarly seen in poetry. The use of flowers is also a beautifully effective device for telling the story seamlessly between the contemporary setting as well as transporting us back to witness the formation of the memory.
There’s also a huge ‘twist’ at the end of this heart-breaking story which really challenges the assumptions our brain makes every single day to make sense of the world. With even the smallest amount of information our mind can create a story which relies on past experiences and ‘stereotypes’. We do it every single day to make sense of the world, and also to define ourselves in it. So Jennings really pulled the rug from under my feet.
Seas of Snow is a difficult book to categorise. It uses elements of psychological thriller, poetry and even fairy-tales to drive the narrative forward. It asks the question if evil is born or made, it cherishes childhood friendships and portrays the most horrific abuse. Despite the often arduous subject matter, I found Seas of Snow ultimately rewarding and a generous book for the close reader. It’s certainly given me lots of food for thought.
You can buy Seas of Snow by Kerensa Jennings here. And there’s an AMAZING guest post by Kerensa here. Please do give it a read, Kerensa generously explains the use of flowers throughout the novel. It’s fascinating.
(Contains Affiliated links)