TOM ZELMAN Tribune of the Stars
“Snowflake” by Louise Nealon; Harper, 336 pages, $26.99.
In Louise Nealon’s debut novel, ‘Snowflake’, we are introduced to the world of life on a small Irish dairy farm by Debbie White, our 18-year-old narrator, who milks cows every day and prepares to go to school. ‘university. While it may sound sweet and healthy, what lies beneath the surface is anything but.
Nealon’s gradual exposition of Debbie’s chaotic home situation and her own deep feelings of unworthiness create in “Snowflake” a vivid story of courage and discovery, of engagement with a world that contains so many interpersonal pitfalls, so many sources of shame, guilt and self. -deception.
In this novel about transition, Debbie has a pair of potential mentors, both damaged themselves. His mother (Mam) is an unpublished, sleepy, mysterious, generally flayed writer. Once a promiscuous teenager in a small town, Mam now drinks and records her dreams. The stories she tells her intelligent and often troubled daughter speak of the allurements of the world of dreams. Mam’s reading of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” for example, centers on Alice’s concern: “I wonder if I was changed overnight? … But if I am no longer the same, the next question is: ‘Who in the world am I?’ “
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Although Mom would love to guide her daughter into adulthood, she herself needs constant care, and Debbie lives in terror of sharing her mother’s mad spirit.
If Mom is a soporific shaman in Debbie’s life, her Uncle Billy, who runs the farm, is her No. 1 cheerleader, pushing her to work towards college, chasing predatory men, scanning constellations with her. from the roof of his caravan. Yet, as Billy envisions a great future for his niece, he is filled with guilt and, like nearly every character in the novel, he is an alcoholic. Debbie also tells us that “drinking is like taking a vacation in my head”. In his community, booze is “the one thing everyone liked”; the only unforgivable sin is going to rehab.
It’s no wonder, then, that on her daily commute to Trinity College, Debbie feels the least comfortable person in Dublin, in her words, “an ass shit out of nowhere” and a “flake of snow” who cries easily. She makes a kind of friend in Xanthe, a privileged but depressed city mouse who is intrigued by Debbie’s way of life and amazed at her ignorance of city customs.
Such intrigue comes to us through conversations. The craic’s jokey back-and-forth — and there’s a lot of it — lightens the book’s serious subject matter. At a funeral midway through the novel, a drunken priest is about to deliver the eulogy. Debbie says: “A confused silence descends on the crowd as if we can’t decide if we’re still afraid of the devil or if we’re just blessed with a polite Irish tolerance for people talking shit.”
Nealon makes us laugh to soften the rawness. And as it all filters through Debbie’s acute awareness, we come to appreciate the protagonist’s fierce curiosity about how to guide themselves to live in the world.
Tom Zelman is professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.