Somewhere between a creative reimagining of the archetypal fairy tale ice queen, a plunge into cross-cultural mythologies, and an exploration of the spectrum of humanity – from the lifeforce we steal when we inflict harm on others, to the worlds we can manifest through the stroke of a violin string – sits The Snow Witch.
The eponymous Snow Witch is Donitza Kravitch, an Eastern European violinist with a traumatic past. The epitome of violent male entitlement, wannabe rock star Riley – the wolf in man’s skin – stalks her through Portsmouth’s streets. White snow comes down on the seaside community at the heart of Matt Wingett’s novel.
For a reader such as I – Portsmouth born and bred – the island’s streets and landmarks ring true in Wingett’s description of the city. From the Victorian terraces to the salty seafront, past Canoe Lake and the ‘hippy shop’ on the corner of the shopping precinct, the landscape informs the narrative and characterises the backdrop of Donitza’s story, whether we are led to the eastern pier ‘abandoned to the winter ravages’ (39) near the model village, or to the Hot Walls of Old Portsmouth.
Evoking place and sensation are two particular strengths of Wingett’s prose. His writing is at times wonderfully evocative, as he describes the ‘soft vanilla butteriness’ of a sponge cake’s scent, or the comforting, domestic presence of a mounted wooden box housing a collection of thimbles.
Donitza’s story in Portsmouth, as she befriends a young man she calls ‘a simpleton’, is told alongside her past flight from her war-torn childhood home.
She is haunted by memories of her mother, who teaches her about old goddesses, herblore, and constellations, how to channel spirits or curse a man with a poppet and needle. This is a novel infused with mysticism. A story of coming home to oneself, Donitza – the Witch, the sparrow, the surrogate daughter – is the refugee who brings magic to the island city. From the violin, Donitza’s protective amulet, her instrument of enchantment, to the fox which lurks outside hostess Celia’s window, paganistic occultism grows stronger with each page as the protagonist learns to reconnect with her power.
Like any folk story which has stood the test of time, passed by word and gesture from elder to child before eventually being committed to paper, the repetition of Wingett’s symbols and themes stand out like blood in snow – the stars and moon, scar tissues, omnipresent flora.
Likewise, present throughout The Snow Witch is the colour palette of the classic fairy tale – the black sea, the Red Man, the white snow, swans, cocaine: the ‘bad white powder’ which moves between characters and intercepts escape, echoing the winter flurry. This mythic trilogy reflects Judaeo-Christian mythology, which is just one of the formal religions informing Donitza’s upbringing and education, and eventually proves to be her salvation.
Fairy stories, ancient myths, and organised religion sit alongside each other in The Snow Witch, and the author strives to connect their similarities rather than highlight their differences – fitting for the diverse port town in which his story is set.
The distinctly literal is also tinged with the esoteric and fantastic – Donitza’s mother, who warns her of ‘moon madness’ and the violence of men, gives her the tools to escape when she must flee from the Wolves – a militia – at the door. ‘Narrativizing’ becomes a literary device which works on multiple levels in The Snow Witch: the reader is invited to look for meaning as the characters try to interpret the world around them – ‘the fox. What does it mean? […] to a trap? – Or to a saviour?’ (134).
The novel’s cover and illustrations are taken from Victorian pen drawings and copperplate engravings from eighteenth century volumes, images Wingett has carefully selected and reimagined within the context.
A bewitching story, deftly weaving arcane mysticism with the often grey reality of Portsmouth, Wingett’s tale of magic realism invites the reader to believe in Donitza’s spellworking through naturalising its presence in such a concrete, real topography.
Dark secrets, hidden stories, entrapment and escape – The Snow Witch is engrossing, compelling, and gracefully articulated.