This 50th-anniversary edition of a novel about a surreal pursuit through an apocalyptic world should bring new attention to Kavan (1901-1968; Who Are You, 1963, etc.), a writer of intense imagination.
Kavan’s unnamed narrator returns to his home country after spending time abroad in the tropics and finds the countryside in the clutch of disturbing, unseasonable cold. He has come back to “investigate rumors of a mysterious impending emergency” but is unable to focus on anything except seeing a woman he was once infatuated with. He blames her past rejection of him for various psychological sufferings and has vivid dreams of her enduring violent physical harm that intrude upon the narrative without warning. He finally sees her, victimized by a poisonous marriage, but then she runs away, and he feels compelled to find her, beginning a lonely chase through a world succumbing to an unspecific and terrifying disaster. Governments fail, militaries take over, tension increases between countries with nuclear armaments, and, most inevitably, deadly cold and walls of ice start to overtake the planet. While elements of Kavan’s story feel sometimes like a science-fiction adventure and sometimes like a hallucinatory psychological nightmare, the whole never sits still as one or the other, and it is always slippery, bizarre, and meticulously written. Time is elastic and the horrors of reality and fantasy are rarely delineated, so the power of one scene falling after another remains unconstrained by conventional logic and is instead wielded for maximum visceral effect. Kavan’s descriptions of disaster are brutal and beautiful: “Ice walls loomed and thundered, smooth, shining, unearthly, a glacial nightmare….” There is little gentleness in this world, and the unrelenting fixation on male pursuit of female victimization might be read as problematic, but aligning that pursuit with a human-inflicted destruction of the entire world provides an interesting pairing to consider.
A gripping and uniquely strange work of science fiction.