Tuesday, January 20, 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard: My Slow Take on the Book


Laura Kasischke's novel White Bird In a Blizzard came out in 1999 but I only got around to reading it this week. That's one of the best by-products of screen adaptations as I've harped on about more than once or twice. Movies — even mediocre movies — based on books, get those books read. That's an especially good thing when the book is as beautifully written as this, Kasischke's second novel. If I hadn't known there was a film starring Shailene Woodley as Kat, Christopher Meloni as her father, and Eva Green as the mother who vanishes one wintry day, I might have missed the book completely. Which would have been a shame because I enjoyed it tremendously.

If you've not read White Bird in a Blizzard, here's the rundown from B&N:
"I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon—pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance—and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone."
Laura Kasischke's first novel Suspicious River was hailed by the critics as "extremely powerful" (The Los Angeles Times), "amazing" (The Boston Globe), and "a novel of depth, beauty, and insight" (The Seattle Times). Now Kasischke follows up her auspicious debut with a spellbinding and erotic tale of marriage, secrets, and self-deception.
When Katrina Connors' mother walks out on her family one frigid January day, Kat is surprised but not shocked; the whole year she has been "becoming sixteen"—falling in love with the boy next door, shedding her baby fat, discovering sex—her mother has slowly been withdrawing. As Kat and her father pick up the pieces of their daily life, she finds herself curiously unaffected by her mother's absence. But in dreams that become too real to ignore, she's haunted by her mother's cries for help. . . .
Like Suspicious River, which The New Yorker described as "by turns terrifying and ravishingly lyrical," White Bird in a Blizzard evokes the works of Kathryn Harrison and Joyce Carol Oates—and confirms Kasischke's arrival as a major talent.
While the story is told from Kat's point of view, we learn a lot about married life and those tricky parental unit type relationships from hearing what Kat thinks of her own mother and father. 'Thinks' might be the key word in why the film seems to have flopped; for so much of the story we are right inside Kat's head, which signals endless voice overs in film structure. While there's some action, particularly coming of age sexual shenanigans, that's not the magic of this novel. It wasn't for me anyway. The magic comes from Kasischke's pen, her very writerly way of working. While for some authors—Suzanne Collins, for example in The Hunger Games — the story and the characters are everything, without using a lot of technique, they just want to get their story told, as if they know we're flying in on their heels, turning the pages fast behind them. It's all pretty straightforward. Exciting, yes but not magical or lyrical in any sense.

White Bird in a Blizzard is not that type of book. It's a novel where the writer is constantly striving to find new textures with which to embroider her tale, new ways of looking at the same old thing so that the imagery is ever fresh and unconventional. I know some readers complain Kasischke has a tendency to cram and jam metaphors into every sentence, and while she may overdo it a tad, for the most part I was swept away but the pictures she painted, much like I was reading Mark Helprin's beautifully evocative Winters Tale.  (It occurs to me now, that some of my appreciation for that novel may have something to do with all the sparkling snow and ice of the season, something I'm all too familiar with having spent the formative years of my childhood from age five to fourteen in Canada, where winter bathed everything in white, where the sky was drained of color like blue had flown south for the winter too. )


Here's Kasischke's first couple of chapters so you'll get the drift.
I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon—pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance—and disappears.                                  
          No one sees her leave but she is gone.
Only the morning before, my mother was a housewife—a housewife who, for twenty years,  kept our house as swept up and sterile as the mind of the winter instelf, so perhaps she finally just whisk-broomed herself out, a luminous cloud of her drifting through the bedroom window as soft as talcum powder, mingling with the snowflakes as they fell, and the stardust and the lunar ash out there.
Later on that same opening page she compares a toxic household cleaner dyed a beautiful ocean blue to disguise its deadly powers:
The blue of a child's eyes, the blue of a robin's egg— But swallow a teaspoon of that and it will turn your insides to lace.
So that's the style of the book, and as I say, I enjoyed it BUT I can see there's not much there to make into a movie. Pages and pages of description can take about half a second to translate to film, fantastic spot on descriptions of characters, rich and lengthy, can be relayed instantly, like a polaroid picture.

A movie needs more than that, it needs a story that 'moves'. Action that takes you places. I'm not sure that White Bird in a Blizzard does much of that. Mostly Kat doesn't miss her mother, and doesn't flail around frantically wondering what happened to her or where she could be. She shares her indifference with her therapist and a couple of best friends. Her boyfriend, not college bound as she is, is a big sexy jock who caught her mother's eye. Her mother, beautiful and bored, is dismissive of her father who she clearly holds in disdain. Her father seems to be oblivious. After she disappears the two of them soldier on. It's not much of a whodunit in that regard; I had my suspicions right from the start but Kasischke doesn't bother building a case because that's not the point. White Bird in a Blizzard is more a coming of age story wrapped up as a thriller than a true crime story;  the novel looks at how mothers and daughters relate to each other, and the messages they give each other about the people they can be if they allow themselves to unlock their cages and fly free.

I'm going to watch the movie — available on Amazon — with very low expectations; so low I'll probably be happily surprised!
I'll let you know. In the meantime, let's watch the trailer:





2 comments:

  1. This is an interesting story. Not a lot happens in this plot, but the characters are so well-drawn and the performances are so good, that it was a pleasure to follow this story to its conclusion.

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    Replies
    1. That's true; and the ending was quite predictable. Still, I enjoyed it:)

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