Baby, It’s Cold Outside

April 9, 2010 at 2:22 am (Uncategorized)

The other novel I finished before Easter was The Ice Age, by Kirsten Reed. A debut novel, its cover carries this brief but enticing description from award-winning Australian author Christos Tsiolkas: ‘Compelling – the twenty-first century love child of Lolita and Huck Finn.’ Kerouac’s Beat rambler On the Road has also been cited in press relating to this book, which was recently shortlisted in the regional Best First Book category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, but I read an online interview with Kirsten (I’m invoking first name rights because I interviewed her for the Varuna Alumni News) in which she denied any conscious influence of any of these seminal texts. She did, however, acknowledge that any such comparisons are of course enormously flattering (although personally I think there’s an outsized, curly Riddler-esque question mark over On the Road, which I didn’t love even though I adore road trips and road narratives), and my own feeling, particularly in the case of Lolita, is that there is value in exploring the textual links whether they were intended by the Brisbane-based, Seattle-born author or no.

I’m surprised Lolita isn’t an acknowledged influence because The Ice Age almost seems like the other half of a conversation that Lolita begins. Lolita’s narrator is Humbert Humbert, the older man of the forbidden relationship, whereas here we have the young woman’s first-person perspective instead. Remaining nameless throughout, our narrator is importantly older than Lolita’s Dolores, turning 18 before the relationship tips into the territory that makes society shudder. The additional years she has on Dolores change the landscape of the novel, but certain discomforts persist simply because she’s young and naïve, and Gunther is worldly and middle-aged.

Like Humbert, Gunther is presented as handsome and smooth (though far less arch in this Continental persona than HH). He’s intelligent. Charismatic. A charmer. Wildly popular with the ladies – the more mature variety, his peers – in whom, also like Humbert, he shows little and forced interest. He appears more casually disturbed by his actions than Humbert, who analyses his own perversity until his attentions become overwhelmingly narcissistic, but this is where The Ice Age’s narrative perspective limits our capacity to access what torment Gunther may or may not be going through. He’s a man of few words as it is, and he’s not our guide through the story, so beyond a few choice remarks when he’s ready/determined to extricate himself (as he always must, so I don’t think this is a spoiler) from this entanglement, we have no idea how he really feels.

And do we care?

Well, not hugely, because our teen narrator is a pretty cool customer, and very good company throughout. Teenagers are wisecracking and shrewd, the keenest observers of others, and Kirsten nails the voice of a girl hitting womanhood armed with little more than her sharp wit and a pair of distressingly narrow hips. She’s still so young, and she sounds it, for all her obvious humour and rapidly developing cynicism. It’s a delicate dance, achieving that balance, and it’s done extremely well here. The awakening she gets on the road – an education she receives with a disturbingly detached absence of horror – is sometimes more like a long-running nightmare, and yet somehow she doesn’t fold, partly because Gunther is not an outright creep and therefore does his best, albeit belatedly and with a stunning display of adult dysfunction, to deliver her from harm.

We share the narrator’s sad and sweet 18th birthday with her, and I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to my own. I was in Canada, far, far away from my hometown of Sydney. I’d spent my 17th birthday the exact same way, at that time having just arrived less than two weeks earlier to start a two-year college experience. Boy, I felt I’d switched planets, not just continents, especially because I had a room party with charitable strangers, my fellow students, that involved hot chocolate and muffins, instead of the underage binge-drinking debacle I could have expected to enjoy back home. What the hell, I wondered, was this? Some kind of sick joke? Am I a child? This is a stupid kid’s party! Where’s the booze?! In other words, I was so busy galloping toward a version of myself in which I was a grown-up the world was finally starting to take seriously, that I failed to recognise my measures only served to demonstrate how much growing I still had left to do. It’s very much the case with The Ice Age’s protagonist, which makes this a bittersweet read because so much of it rings true.

I think the novel’s truth is particularly significant in its presentation of our heroine’s budding sexuality. That age is so wily. Girls in Western society are often sexually active by 17-18, but their judgement is almost sure to be grossly impaired for those formative years and for an embarrassing number of years to come. They develop wild crushes on absolutely everyone, or at least I did, particularly anyone who paid the slightest attention to me. Seriously. Anyone.  Practically all you had to do was meet me in the eye, and mentally I’d be off and racing, weaving elaborate trysts and spectacular fireworks out of… NOTHING. No wonder most of my ardent crushes were unrequited – those poor guys were only trying to pass the salt! But the fact is, I’d developed and then maintained a vivid internal sexual world from quite a young age, and by the time I had the freedom and hormones to match, it made me very vulnerable in an external world that teemed with possibility and promise. It made the world dangerous, and mistakes were duly made. And watching this young girl walk straight into the same minefield… well, it was painful, because somehow a lot of us fall deaf around about the same time, and so we can’t hear the straining Siren song. Mistakenly accused of causing men to shipwreck, instead I think of these mythical figures as sister spirits, trying their hardest to call us back to safety.

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4 Comments

  1. Jenny said,

    Sirens calling maidens back from dangerous shores. Love it! Wish I lived in another country so I could sneakily steal your imagery. School holidays with adolescent boys suck – at least they do when you’re their mother. I’m not even looking at Darkling emails until Wednesday, when the boys go back to school. It will be my term-time treat.
    WC DI 54,100.
    Love from The Changeling.

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    I, too, love your take on the Sirens! What an apt description of that age, Di. I remember it well.

  3. Norwichrocks said,

    Half the time I still feel that age – gauche and naive and not taken seriously…

    Oh and I’ve had to make my blog private due to one of my colleagues at work dobbing me in to the boss (the cow) but I’ve added you to the list of people who should still have access to it. If you can’t get in, could you let me know as it will mean I’ve done something wrong?! Thanks!
    Norwichrocks or Woo at Curiouser and curiouser

  4. Grad said,

    Stories such as this remind me of the girl in my class who ran off with our married ballet instructor, a guy twice her age. It was quite the scandal. I guess they took their pas de deux a little too seriously. Nevertheless, when I get the alumna newsletter, I see she still has his last name, so maybe it worked out afterall.

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