No 553 Ice by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan’s Ice has been labelled many things. A straightforward apocalyptic sci-fi tale; an allegory of (Kavan’s own) heroin addiction and/or the cold war; a before it’s time warning about the dangers of climate change; a feminist response to misogyny and abuse, or a Beckettian work of the traumas of the inner mind.


All these readings are both valid, in that the work supports them, and equally invalid as they simplify a complex, labyrinthine work of world creation and metaphor. This is a novel that cannot be reduced by one reading or another, and in fact, if I were to read it again, I imagine I would come away with an entirely different understanding of what Kavan is trying to do.

This then, makes reviewing, or even describing Ice somewhat difficult. The plot, if it can be called that, features a nameless narrator on an obsessive hallucinatory search for his “glass girl” against the back drop of a frozen landscape where large walls of ice and taking over the world and secret government agencies are conspiring for control in the midst of this global catastrophe.

I felt a fearful sense of pressure and urgency, there was no time to lose, I was wasting time; it was a race between me and the ice. Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of the world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.

This damaged young woman, also nameless, has distinctive long white hair and is delicate as glass. She is being kept in isolation by her husband, ‘the warden’ who is high up in the military and enjoys toying with our narrator as they fight over the girl.

Over the course of the novel, as the world disintegrates, so too does reality, and the men seem to merge and become one entity before separating out again – both supposedly in love with the woman, but neither thinking of her needs. This seemingly romantic and epic search for the girl is not quite as selfless as it first appears and slowly and subtly, the narrator conflates with the controlling warden, until they both want to control her completely.

She was trying to become invisible in the snow. Sudden terror had seized her: the thought of the man whose ice-blue eyes had a magnetic power which could deprive her of will and thrust her down into hallucination and horror. The fear she lived with, always near her, close behind the world’s normal façade, had become concentrated on him. And there was another connected with him, they were in league together, or perhaps they were the same person.

As the narrator crosses seas and countries in his quest for the girl, the ice is always closing in. The novel is surreal and often terrifying with an overall atmosphere of confusion and instability.


There are no place names and no references to what time period these events are happening in. The past? The future? For large parts of the book, the reader is as lost and grasping as the unnamed narrator, whose musings become increasingly random and vague, leaving us lost in a swirl of memories, hopes and dreams, At times, we wonder if the whole story is in fact a paranoid hallucination in the mind of the narrator, threatening to overcome him completely, just as the ice wall is closing in on the world.

So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.

Kavan’s descriptive passages on the ice and snow are stunning, glittering like the very thing they describe and bringing beauty to this force of nature that is going to decimate the world.

Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all round. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs.

It’s easy to see why it has been read as an allegory for Kavan’s well documented heroin addiction – the white snow mirroring the white powder, the confusion, the paranoia. However this reading does it a disservice, even if the text supports it.

Ice is almost impossible to characterize and Kavan’s skill and prose elevate it beyond genre or classification. It is a work of immense power and striking imagery that almost requires a second reading. Modernist in tone, its dream-like structure and ruptures in narrative plotting make it unique and almost impossible to classify.

With its spiraling structure, labyrinthine plot and lack of focus, Ice could have been a muddled mess, however it is beautifully written, wonderfully open-ended and is one of those books that it is often best just to go with to see where it will take you.

rip 13

I read Ice as part of the RIP Challenge and it was a great one to kick off with.

Read on: Kindle

Number Read: 194

Number Remaining: 552




Reading Roulette The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

19 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve had this one in my sights for years now, but somehow never quite managed to get it in hand. Your tantalizing account of it may be just the kick in the pants I need for me to get my act together on this. Many thanks!


  2. Wow, this sounds amazing! I’ve never heard of Ice before, or even of Anna Kavan (I’ve Googled her now, though, so I’m a little more up to speed). This book sounds like a true masterpiece – but something you definitely have to be in the mood for. Loved your review as well!


  3. What a wonderful review of a book that sounds hard to review!
    I’m not sure if this one appeals to me – generally, I’m not a fan of hallucinatory or dream-like narratives. But it definitely sounds intriguing…


  4. Really excellent review, Cathy. I loved this book for its strangeness and dreamlike quality. Five or six years on, there are still passages and images from the novel that have stayed with me. One of the signs of a great book, I think.


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